Antarctica: a portrait of penguins and pastel hues

  • "When you leave, you're always wondering if this is the last time you'll see Antarctica. Anyone who visits will feel it ... a sort of emptiness. You get very emotional when you leave ... to think you may never return, is a strange thing. There's something missing when you remember the days and the light, the late evening when the ice glows pink and blue - boy, you'll never experience this again unless you make the effort! 
  • Brett's book is still a best-seller and now possibly on its third edition, remains a must-have guide for anyone visiting the Antarctic. Go with an understanding of what you'll see and your appreciation is enhanced. Books like this are an essential part of the journey, which begins long before you travel.  

Published by Simon Mustoe

Where did your fascination with the Antarctic begin?

I'd always painted birds. Even at primary school, I had my own space on the wall. I've still got pictures of crested penguins from that wall. Most of my inspiration was from my imagination and I conjured up images from what I'd seen in books. From the age of about 10, I would spend days on the Great Ocean Road, beach-combing, finding carcasses of birds like Blue Petrels and albatross. 

As I stared out across the ocean and in the distance, I could see Lady Julia Percy Island and Lawrence Rocks: islands surrounded by water and ringed by rugged cliffs. The fascination I had - still have - for islands was created from those early days. My drawings were what I could glean from my imagination, of distant places and hostile conditions. It was quite enthralling to let my mind wander like that.

How did you first get to the Antarctic?

By the time I first visited Antarctica, I'd been painting professionally for about 5 years. 

That early childhood interest in islands, seabirds and marine mammals, made me want to go to Macquarie Island. I approached the Antarctic division about getting a public relations berth on a voyage but they were always so greatly competed-for by established journalists, film-makers and photographers. 

In the end, I was offered the chance to work alongside a veterinary researcher who was studying Weddell Seals at Davis Station and while my first passion was the Subantarctic Islands, I wasn't about to knock back the chance to get to Antarctica. At the time, it was a far more difficult place to reach. 

So I took on that role - as a field biologist - tagging and weighing Weddell Seals. 

From September to February, we had to tag as many as possible. We handled 400 pups and did the first ever weighing of adults using a cattle weighing station. As with everything in Antarctica, you arrive thinking you know what you're doing and immediately face uncertain challenges. 

The process of getting to the pups was more difficult than we imagined. They are pretty quiet animals and spend much of their time lying outside their breeding holes but when mum hears footsteps, she quickly makes it known how much she'll do to protect her newborn.

Pup Weddells are like most baby seals, fluffy, gorgeous and they have a beautiful little cry. However, they pack on weight pretty quickly each day and by the time they are sub-adult, their unmanageable ... so we only had a small window. 

After that journey, I was fascinated by them for ages - I can still hear their song through the ice. It's a captivating sound.

How did you come to illustrate and co-author the Guide to Antarctic Wildlife?

From my very first trip to the Antarctic I was full of enthusiasm to collect as much reference material as possible.

I'd sent some slides of petrel paintings to a handful of scientists around the world to see if there was chance paint professionally, in some format or another, in future. I wrote to John Warham, a famous petrel researcher in New Zealand and he handed them to Hadoram Shirihai, who asked me if I was interested in illustrating a book on Antarctic wildlife.  

The book was published in 2002 and I had just 12 months to do the 36 plates. It was intense and involved. It was also my first major illustration project that led to all the all the other books I've done since, such as the Whales, Dolphins and Seals. 

I think there can be a disassociation between authors and illustrators in field guides ... the difference with this book, is I'd had that field experience. Generally only the artist knows how to be true to the animal. At the end of the day, if you get illustrations that are pretty life-like, that usually impresses people and it makes for a more valuable guide, to help people learn about and understand wildlife.

You've guided in Antarctica, what are people's fears and what do they really find its like when they visit?

Most people have a fear of the vessel and the ocean crossing but it's generally fairly short. Once they get their sea legs, the excitement of approaching the Antarctic coast kicks in and this puts them at ease. Then they start seeing the colours, the changing scenery, from overcast days and rough seas, to gorgeous pastel hues and the landscape lit up like a Christmas tree in mornings and evenings. It's very pacifying.

Other people are apprehensive of the cold but then they realise how comfortable and clean the ships are and how many interesting things there are to do. 

There are two types of ships, luxury ships and expedition ships. 

I tend towards the expedition vessels as I love getting out amongst it, studying the wildlife. But even the expedition vessels have the creature comforts of the bigger ships - you're basically warm, fed, and entertained on board. They are working vessels that get leased out to do expeditions and that's pointed out from the start.  

Whatever ship you're on, they're pretty busy places. 

On a good day, we would end up doing three shore stops. On average, there may be 100 people on board, so the crew are busy with the logistics of getting everyone on and off safely. Of course, there is a lot of safety gear - for people, animals and the environment - that has to be offloaded because it's really important to protect the place; how you move about on the ice, wildlife interactions etc, all have an impact that's managed carefully. 

And there is a lot going on and often with the weather, so you can have brief windows of opportunity. In my opinion, the best days are those that start early and finish late ... there's not much time for rest but then you really feel like you are getting value for money!

Once the shore excursions have ended and the evening starts to unfold, there is plenty to do. Scientists are on board hosting different talks; there are movies;  bars ... and on some ships, libraries, sporting and recreation rooms. There's more than enough to keep you entertained on a day to day basis. 

Does it feel crowded?

No, not really. 100 people doesn't feel crowded, even during shore visits, as they're often staggered - perhaps 15 people per boat. Generally, there's not 100 people on shore at any one time. Again, these landings are based around ship time ... breakfast, lunch and dinner have fixed spots. It's all very cleverly run so the guests are very well looked after and feel they have the space.

What about other boats? Do you see anyone else?

No. Other vessels are scheduled at different times, so they work around each other. I've rarely seen another ship turn up - so you feel the isolation. It's very special. 

How does the reality compare to what you see on TV?

Most people are simply overwhelmed and are planning the next trip when they're already half way through the first one! 

People want to see things they've heard about and seen throughout their life. Most of us have a wish-list and if, for example, you become attracted by a particular film about Antarctica, you just need help to select the journey that relates to those places. Some penguins for instance, most ships can't do it, there is a limited window. 

You're a family man now. What are your hopes or dreams about getting back there in the future?

I can't see leaving my kids until they've left home. I have some regrets about not getting to certain Antarctic Islands as my childhood interests was in those moss-covered, tussock-covered islands which are a haven for all those animals I love.

One day, maybe, I will have a project in mind to get me down there. I am grateful I got this in before having kids, I feel very privileged. 


Visit Brett's website at

Brett's books include:

Wildiaries • August 2016