Writing Residencies in Antarctica and South Georgia

What would you gain, what might the world gain, by your writing in ANTARCTICA?
What would you gain, what might the world gain, by your writing in ANTARCTICA?

Believe it or not, artist-in-residence opportunities literally abound in US Antarctic outposts. From the National Science Foundation website, re: Antarctic Artists and Writers Programs–

The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program furnishes U.S. Antarctic Program operational support, and round-trip economy air tickets between the United States and the Southern Hemisphere, to artists and writers whose work requires them to be in the Antarctic to complete their proposed project. The Program does not provide any funding to participants, including for such items as salaries, materials, completion of the envisioned works, or any other purpose.

U.S. Antarctic Program infrastructure consists of three year-round stations and numerous austral-summer research camps in Antarctica, research ships in the Southern Ocean, and surface and air transportation. These assets support the artist and writer projects. The main purpose of the U.S. Antarctic Program is scientific research and education.

The Antarctic Artists and Writers Program supports writing and artistic projects specifically designed to increase understanding and appreciation of the Antarctic and of human activities on the southernmost continent.

The program does not support short-term projects that are essentially journalistic in nature. See Section IX (Other NSF Programs.)

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the US Palmer Research Center on the Antarctic Peninsula. Note the glacier directly behind, which used to be mere feet from the station. It has receded, as have most of Antarctic glaciers:

Imagine yourself writing, HERE...
Imagine yourself writing, HERE…

Palmer Station (as are the other two US research stations in Antarctica, McMurdro and South Pole) is primarily a place for scientific research. At Palmer I was introduced to the work of several scientists, including those investigating the effects of changes in ocean pH (one aspect of climate change) on krill, pictured below. Krill are tiny, shrimp-like creatures that are the primary source of food for many whales, seals and penguins. As krill goes, so goes the fate of much of the ecosystem of the Antarctic.


Other researchers are attempting to document the whole host of relatively slowly accumulating effects of climate change in the Antarctic oceans. While most of the world perceives climate change in rising air temperatures, rising ocean temperatures in Antarctic waters could have much greater long-term effects.

Living quarters are close (at Palmer Station, dorms house the 30-something researchers and staff during the summer months, with far fewer souls remaining through the dark winters), food is reported to be quite good, and everyone, I hear (even an artist-in-residence, I imagine) has at least two jobs.

Just the thought of what that other job might be, plus the idea of learning so much cutting-edge and clearly relevant and important science, sends my writerly imagination to the…well, the Antarctic!


View of abandoned whaling station at Grytviken, South Georgia, from a few hundred feet up.
View of abandoned whaling station at Grytviken, South Georgia, from a few hundred feet up.

I knew a little bit about the whaling station (now abandoned but partly restored through the work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust) at Grytviken, South Georgia from reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and Nathaniel Philbrick. (If you want to know where in the world is South Georgia, turn your globe upside down and look carefully for a crescent-shaped island about 1200 miles due east of the southernmost tip of South America.)

For those of you not familiar with the South Pole explorer Earnest Shackelton, Gryvitken is the place Shackelton finally arrived after the failure of his 1914 “Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.” After crossing open and historically merciless ocean from Elephant Island (just off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula) to (the wrong side of) South Georgia in an entirely un-Southern Ocean-worthy vessel (the Caird, originally a lifeboat for the Endurance, Shackelton’s expedition ship that was crushed by sea ice and sank in the Weddell Sea), Shackelton and a few of his fellow officers and shipmates hiked over South Georgia’s mountains, crevasses and even frozen waterfalls to the whaling station at Grytviken. There, Shackelton knew he’d find sailors capable of helping him rescue the rest of his crew. He did. They did. Everyone was rescued. It was nothing short of a miracle.

The station now is an other-worldly montage of the history of a brutal whaling industry and the both increasingly threatened (by factors such as climate change) and clearly recovering animal populations (protected, now, by a variety of agreements). For example:

Elephant seal pups ("weaners") are on their own after 28 days of nursing.
Elephant seal pups (“weaners”) are on their own after 28 days of nursing.

Contemplation of the ruins of the place is, I must say, fertile ground for story. What must it have been like for a flenser (a whale industry worker whose job it was to strip the skin and blubber from the whale carcass) at Grytviken in 1912 to process a blue whale with a length of 33.58 meters (well over 100 feet)? What jobs, if any, did women perform? Why did Ernest Shackelton’s wife choose to send his body back from Uruguay (en route to the United Kingdom) to be buried, amid strangers and far from home, at Grytviken?


Oh, and here’s my favorite story-maker, a plaque I found in the “whaler’s church,” which was used, it seems, primarily for storing potatoes:


The South Georgia Heritage Trust is a Scottish organization; be sure to follow the link to their website to understand all the work this mighty NGO undertakes. Their biggest project at present (described by one of their primary patrons, Princess Anne–and yes, that is the sister of Prince Charles–as the type of project usually taken on only by governmental organizations) is the eradication of rats in South Georgia. Rats, introduced coincidentally with explorers and their ships, have decimated native bird populations.

SGHT funds and programs for artists are less well-defined than those of the US NSF described above. However, at Grytviken, the volunteer tour guide mentioned she was part of an artist-in-residence program and a sculptor, Anthony Smith, is reported in several on-line mentions to have been the South Georgia Heritage Trust Artist In Residence in 2013-14. I made an inquiry to the SGHT Dundee office at info@sght.org and received this lovely reply from Alison Neil:

We don’t have an official artist in residence program at the museum, but artists do sometimes join our museum team as volunteers, and contribute art to raise funds for the Trust’s conservation work. I am not sure quite how this would work in your case, but if you would like to submit a CV and covering letter to me by email, we could consider you for the 2015-16 season.

Another NGO active in the region is the US-based Friends of South Georgia Island . Friends of South Georgia Island works toward the same natural and historical preservation goals as SGHT. Contact them re: artist-in-residence opportunities at info@fosgi.org.


So what is a fiction writer to make of all of this? What is the role of the artist in an Antarctic scientific research station? What is the call of the artist to remote places where natural and human history collide, where, as I heard time and time again, environmental issues present as “canaries in the coal mine” for the often heedless world?

I guess I just want to put it out there, the idea that if the world is too much with you, late and soon; that if you need to depth-charge your imagination into action; that if you believe, as I do, that fiction can change the world, if only one reader at a time; that if you’re from Minnesota it’s not that much colder…

Fellow-writers: check out these opportunities to write in the southern seas. The world is big. Climate change looms. Stories wait, perhaps more impatiently than we know, to be told.






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