In the Eye of Antarctica

Ice carved by the elements in Andvord Bay. (Photo: Ari Friedlaender)
An iceberg in Andvord Bay has been carved by the extreme Antarctic elements. (Photo: Ari Friedlaender)

By Lee Anna Sherman

MOST PEOPLE BEING CHASED BY AN ANGRY LEOPARD SEAL would throttle up their boat and roar away as fast as possible. Not Ari Friedlaender. When one of the 600-pound, razor-toothed, penguin-eating predators charged his small inflatable one morning in the icy waters of Antarctica, the Oregon State University marine mammal researcher paused for a photo op.

Leopard seal (Photo: Ari Friedlaender
Leopard seal (Photo: Ari Friedlaender

It happened a couple years ago when he was in the Errera Channel taking skin samples of humpbacks for a study on feeding behavior. A colleague from California, a first-timer in Antarctica, was driving the Zodiac.

“Ari?” the driver said suddenly with a note of alarm in his voice.

“What?” Friedlaender shot back, a bit impatiently, still scanning the sea for whales.

“Dude, what do I do?” the driver said. This time he sounded really scared.

Quickly turning, Friedlaender locked eyes with a leopard seal coming up fast behind the boat, its chest high in the water, its nostrils flared, its hot breath audible in the frigid air. The driver froze, waiting for instructions.

“Could you slow down?” Friedlaender asked excitedly. “I want to take a picture.”

Ari Friedlaender
Ari Friedlaender

The driver slacked off the throttle just long enough for Friedlaender to grab his Nikon and click off a few shots. Then he gunned the motor and sped out of the seal’s territory.

“Leopard seals are huge,” says Friedlaender, whose discoveries about the hidden lives of Antarctic whales and seals have added important data to the science of these remote and rarely seen animals. “They’re 10 feet long with a head the size of a basketball. And they’re very territorial. If they think you’re impinging on their turf, they’ll come over and bite your boat. Last year, one of the air chambers in my boat got deflated by a leopard seal. We sagged and had to go back to the research station for repairs.”

The photos Friedlaender took that day convey the menace in the animal’s face with spine-tingling intensity. The menacing seal represents one moment, one mood among 56 moments and moods collected and bound into a book titled Unframable: Life and Light Around the Antarctic Peninsula. From the golden glow of dawn’s first light at Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island to the translucent blue facets of a towering iceberg in Wilhemina Bay to the zoomed-in eye of a killer whale and the freeze-frame flight of a wandering albatross, the researcher reveals the splendor and drama of Antarctica as it appears to him, a scientist with the heart of an artist.

At the Intersection of Art and Science

Growing up on the East Coast with an orthopedic surgeon for a dad and an art museum curator for a mom, Friedlaender’s early view of life was, by equal measures, empirical and aesthetic. In fact, his parents have collaborated on a medical school curriculum that brings first-year students to the Yale British Art Center to develop clinical diagnostic skills by learning to look closely at paintings and then describe them in nuanced detail. So it’s not surprising that after his first research trip to Antarctica — where he counted whales and photographically documented their unique colorations, pigmentation patterns and scars for scientific identification — he was captivated by the otherworldly beauty of the landscape as well as the astounding diversity of the wildlife.

“I immediately knew that was the place I wanted to work, the environment I wanted to work in,” he says.

He struggles to put words to the magnetic attraction he felt. It was something about the juxtaposing forces at the bottom of the Earth, he says, a place brutally harsh yet incredibly fragile, coldly forbidding to humans yet warmly hospitable for animals adapted to life in a subzero ecosystem.

As an associate professor in the Bio-Telemetry and Behavioral Ecology Lab of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, Friedlaender investigates how whales and seals feed, swim, dive, socialize, mate and migrate — what he calls their “behavioral ecology.” Because the animals live mostly underwater and out of sight, the lab devises tools — such as suction-cup tags equipped with multiple sensors (much like a smart phone), as well as audio and video technologies — to measure, interpret and quantify the animals’ habits and actions, not only in Antarctica but also Alaska, California and Cape Cod.

One project, for instance, tracks feeding patterns in baleen whales and compares those patterns to the abundance and behavior of prey species such as krill, the shrimplike zooplankton favored by humpbacks, minkes and other oceanic filter-feeders.

“We got a National Science Foundation grant several years ago to study the feeding behavior of whales in Antarctica, because nobody had done that before,” he says. “By tagging them and measuring the krill patches they feed on, we’ve learned a huge amount about how they behave and how they respond to changes in their environment. They’re beautiful — their movement patterns, the kinematics of how they swim and lunge and take advantage of krill swarms. Just learning about underwater animal behavior is a big leap forward.”

Jointly with the NSF-funded Palmer Long-Term Ecological Research program, Friedlaender also studies climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula. “The peninsula is warming faster than any other region on the planet,” he says. “Understanding how these changes affect the structure and function of the Antarctic marine ecosystem is a paramount question.”

Hints and Reflections

Thumb through Friedlaender’s book Unframable to see and feel the polarity of the place. One page will lull you with an image that’s quietly benign: a sleeping fur seal pup; an Adelie penguin sheltering her chicks; a blubbery clump of ice-lolling crabeater seals. The next page will stun you with a picture that’s violently lethal: two south polar skuas (a species of large seabird) snatching a still-downy chinstrap penguin off the rocks; a leopard seal holding a Gentoo penguin in its scraggly, yellow teeth. The photos also record the continent’s vast vagaries of scale, showing the most intimate features of a marine mammal’s face (an eye, a blowhole, a mouthful of baleen) as well as the unfathomable reaches of ice, sea and sky.

And there are hints of human presence. Look closely and you can see the reflection of two men in the eye of a seal. You can just make out a boatful of scientists, dwarfed by a massive, seal-studded shelf of ice. On the back of a minke whale surfacing for air, you can spot a suction-cup tag, its primary green and red colors oddly dissonant against the steel-gray sea.

For Friedlaender, his Antarctic photos serve two purposes. One, they’re an expression of his own awe, an attempt to capture a sense, however fragmentary, of this place that feeds both his scientific curiosity and his artistic sensibility. And two, they’re an embodiment of his commitment to conserving the fragile ecosystem that hosts astonishing life forms unique to its shallows and its depths. He hopes his images will inspire a conservation ethic, maybe even activism, in people who see them. That’s why, every year, after his scientific research trips are over, he signs on with the ecotourism cruise line One Ocean to lead a trip specifically focused on experiencing whales and seals.

“I like to make people aware of how fragile this place is, and how beautiful, with the caveat that this might not continue if we keep doing what we’re doing,” he says. “On the ship, I tell the passengers they have a responsibility to go back home and share what they’ve learned, maybe take some kind of action, to protect and conserve this incredible ecosystem. I tell them, ‘This isn’t a free ride.’”