...so this glacier that you see above is over 20 km wide/long.... (some can be 25/30km)
The scale of this place takes my breath each day. In the Arctic, we encountered vistas and seas like this, but this seems endless. Without start or end....you imagine that this is now the state of the whole planet! Time, despite being under such time pressures here for many many reasons, seems irrelevant, meaningless, like it is too small somehow. Words too I'm afraid!!
This stunning photograph is taken by John from the landing site. After a couple of hours with the penguins I am taken on a solo zodiac run with a very interesting glaciologist; Sanna. We search the bay for safe icebergs where we can pull up close and anchor with only minimal risk of it turning. (For those of you reading who don't already know let me digress to say that about only 10% of an iceberg is visible above the water. The rest is underneath and can be either attached to the sea floor or floating above it. Either way they are constantly and very gradually turning/moving. There are of course signs as to the state of an iceberg, which is what Sanna is looking for, but there are also many factors that can alter that state....and quickly. In wild places like this everything changes extremely quickly and to the untrained eye/ear without warning. (I remember being really effected by this in the Arctic and am pulled back to that state of readiness here. If I had heckles.....they would be up!!!!) I am both exhilarated by the thought of getting so close to these beautiful, strange, silk islands and a little terrified about all of the unknowns of this place. In the cold too you atone to your breathing more. I am aware of a gathering speed and try to pull things back and focus on the sound.
The final image above is us pulling away after quite a long time where we actually anchored ourselves to this beauty. You will also see the anchor and perhaps even get a sense of the mass ice below the surface from the images. We were actually sitting above an ice shelf, which changed the sound quite a bit. I heard stronger bass movement and pops than ever before as the bergs chatted and I think complained about the boat hovering above their space! Towards the end and after moving to a new location to try to escape the zodiacs, I heard a new murmuring from the ice that was extremely conversational. Wonderful. For this you'll have to wait for the 1st new commission with RTÉ Concert Orchestra!
Early landing this morning, where I spent a blissful morning listening to much quieter/calmer colonies of gentoo penguins with quite an extraordinary backdrop...... As before, i was fortunate enough to have about 30/60 minutes 'alone time' at the beginning of each landing, which really made the trip for me and of course made certain field recordings possible. Below is a tiny snippet from that time, but please note that the recording has been edited from quad to stereo. Interestingly you can hear the chicks much more clearly. Tragically, as you can also see in John's photo these chicks are much younger than the ones from further north. They are late, due to very late thawing of the snow. Without exposed rocks this species of penguin were not able to begin breeding, therefore breeding was delayed and it is unlikely that most of these chicks will survive. It is heartbreaking to watch, but somehow even more-so to hear their calls. Rest assured that this is down to us........
Not to get too much into this, as I'm not a scientist/researcher with extensive knowledge, but in speaking with those more qualified I hear a bit more about how this late thaw and more generally how the changing land and the receeding sea-ice is altering species native to this place. For example, I understand that there was a time when we would be seeing Adele penguins this far north in Antartica. But current conditions are better suited to the species of penguins breeding on rocks and the Adele move further south in search of ice mass to breed. (If you are interested and would like to read more here's an article that is worth a read: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/gentoo-penguins-thrive-while-adelies-and-chinstraps-falter-in-a-climate-changed-world/ )
With each landing or zodiac expedition it seems obvious that we are experiencing just some brief moments in the current life of this magnificent place. What we see and hear varies hugely you really get the sense of being present, right now, today and with this enormous place. I try to focus, to appreciate, to capture.....but so much of this place is overwhelming in its colour, its wildness, its vastness that I fear I will never fully comprehend the breath of the natural complex systems that tether us all, but which we seem unconnected to throughout most of our daily lives. Here, I feel connected. I know that sounds corny, but here you can feel the motion, the cause-and-effect of things that we share no place in yet we directly alter from the other side of the world. We catch a glimpse of the harshness of life here for its inhabitants, but also the natural flow of life. This year, with the late thaw the Gentoo penguin off-spring will fall. But perhaps next year will be very different, part of my point is that we are experiencing only a tiny fraction of what life is here. Compared even to The Arctic, this continent is vast and wild. Life shifts largely without our physical presence/interference......and yet we are very much felt in everything. We are the foreigners here, the strangers, which most of the natives are curious about.....so much so that we find it difficult to NOT get in the way as these little movers flit and purposefully wander everywhere. (see little video below!) These are penguin highways and you can see why. They are all over the place and help the penguins cut down on energy consumption as they move. You have to constantly be aware of your surroundings, as these little fellows get everywhere. And just listen to that sound......
Next up....back on the water.......
Today is my 1st solo Zodiac trip with the head zodiac driver 'Flipper', to see if we can find an isolated spot that's far enough away from the ship and other zodiacs, so that I may listen in relative silence. I recall from my Arctic trip just how difficult this can be, so I'm prepared for all kinds of interferences. It is quite strange to be in one of the remotest places on the planet and still be haunted by unwanted human-made sounds! Of course, even more so, as I drop the hydrophones (underwater microphones) deep into the water and reveal all of the excessive noises we humans are making simply by being here! If I am distracted by this, how do you think the seas permanent/temporary inhabitants feel????
As well locate some potential sources and Flipper pulls us close, I try to listen beyond the engines and deep down into the floating or grounded icebergs.....and it is simply glorious. My 👂 carry strong and tangible memories of familiar sounds of Arctic ice, but also new sounds emerge. Each and every piece of ice is unique, this is why I am and will continue to keep searching for opportunities like this one to listen. Here, right at this moments of this icebergs life I hear fresh pops and the build up of pressure before a low and relatively soft release. The sun is shining and the ice is...well......SINGING.....You can 👂 all of the tiny air bubbles escaping, rising and reaching for the surface. It's like you have been dropped in to a very intense negotiation and are ease-dropping on a language we can't possibly understand, but gleaming the general urgency of its call. Once again, after 9 years, I am back in the land of extremes: above almost total silence, beneath a cacophony of communication, motion and life. And......briefly.... my ears and I are alone with the ice....... until we break by the sound of a distant zodiac engine.
This is my first outing with a new team. Flipper and I have never met, which is extremely unusual for field recording. Usually and preferably, it's a lone and private activity. However, if for security or other reasons someone needs to be there, it's always someone I know and trust implicitly. This setup will take time and patience, but Flipper clearly knows + respects this place, is keen to help + seems to value the act of listening, which signals a wonderful beginning. We move to a few locations and test just how far the ship engine noise travels, so we can plan and consult with the bosses for our next trip. For today however, I have heard the potential and am floating on a high from the ice songs. For hours we float and slide by numerous icebergs of all shapes and sizes. They are so elegant, yet dominant. They appear like the stationary giants in an otherwise fluid landscape, yet they too are constantly moving, breathing, resizing and re-shaping. The air is crisp and the rich sun provides colour and warmth, as the blissful reality of my situation continues to startle me.
,After a rather rocky 2 days of sailing through the Drake Passage we finally pull in to one of the northern most Shetland Islands. We have been briefed, performed safety checks, additional antigen tests, sanitised equipment + clothes and practiced entering and exiting a zodiac (these are the small boats you see in the images that are used to bring us to land while the main boat remains in deeper waters).....finally we are ready to set foot on land. The wonderful team here has arranged for us to travel with the 1st zodiacs , so that I can have some 'alone-time' with this glorious place + its population before other people arrive. Getting in and out of these moving objects with equipment has to be done with care and confidence!! (We are greatly tutored...) As we board the snow begins to fall and our journey to land is fresh, fast and a little scary.....We slowly clamber off the zodiac onto a rocky shore ...feeling very awkward with all of the extra clothes, wellies and of course gear! Already I catch the smell of the inhabitants....lots and lots of penguins. Two kinds here: Gentoo and ChinStrap. Ab, the expedition leader, leads me far away and towards the singing colonies up and over the ridge. He explains what I am seeing, but I will admit to a certain amount of my zoning out and simply being overwhelmed by these tiny choir masses! There I sit surrounded by these wondrous creatures, as they wander around slightly awkwardly, finish moulting, feed their young and I guess generally just try to stay alive. There is now a driving snow that gets heavier and heavier making mine a very difficult 1st day! I was really hoping for a softer start, but the sounds are so inspiring that I just keep at it and watch as my mics get covered in snow, protecting the cable connection points where possible. The ChinStraps sound in energetic bursts and otherwise fall silent, where the Gentoo is a softer and perhaps more familiar penguin sound. What is perhaps most noticeable is the communal waves of activity within each species - beginning from relative silence one penguin calls and soon follows most of the rest of group. All chiming in. Sometimes it spreads out and across the land area, but mostly the sound is temporarily contained within the group. The audio snippet below is of the chinstrap as they 'honk' to be heard! The beautifully captured image is of those same chinstraps by John Godfrey, who is by my side throughout.
I move as seamlessly as is possible amongst them, always making sure not to interfere with their path. (You can see in the snippet from my gopro video below that these are curious animals.....so much so that I almost fall over trying to move away from one little guy.) We are still in the moulting season for the chicks, so it is vital that we do not interfere with them or cause them stress, as each additional move costs them energy that they likely don't have to spare. We are still quite north, so not a lot of snow on the ground yet, but there is a real cold wind and coupled with the snow fall makes for a very tough recording environment. I have waited my whole life to meet these little animals and am delighted to say that it was worth the wait. I could just sit, watch + listen to them all day........
After hours we leave land and return to the ship. We are the first to arrive and last to leave.....
We set sail again and spend the early evening on deck watching this extraordinary place unfold around us, as we drift further into the snow and ice.
After all the preparation, worrying and stress I simply can't believe we are really here. The songs of my first penguin encounter fill my ears, as I begin to imagine the composition work that is to come.......
A composer/sound artist whose compositions try to bring every day environments, how we hear every day sounds/places + how we are in the world into focus. At the root of this is a continued interest in blurring the distinction between what we consider ‘music’ and all other sound.