Story transcripts

Frozen Frontier

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reporter: Charles Wooley
Producer: Nick Greenaway

As a 60 Minutes reporter, Charles Wooley has been lucky enough to have travelled to every continent on earth - bar one. Antarctica, that vast icy wilderness at the bottom of the world.

Well, finally he made it. Charles spent an unforgettable week there and the images will stay with him forever.

The incredible scale, the wildlife, the night-less skies, the frightening emptiness and, amazingly, the colours of ice.

Australia is the biggest stakeholder in this beautiful land and we've pushed harder than anyone to protect it from exploitation.

But, as Charles discovered, change is on its way.

PHOTOS: See more from behind the scenes here.

Full transcript:

STORY – CHARLES WOOLEY: At the bottom of the earth, 14,000 square kilometres of ice and rock. 70 per cent of all the fresh water on earth lies frozen here. Antarctica - a place that overwhelms the senses, and, I was to discover, a place that’s as dangerous as it is dramatic.

CHRIS: Dig, dig, dig.

CHARLES WOOLEY: What happens if they can’t do it?

CHRIS: Charles, if you can’t dig this hole in the next five minutes, you’re gonna freeze to death. Hurry up.

CHARLES WOOLEY: God. Okay.

CHRIS: It’s not good enough, keep digging.

CHARLES WOOLEY: I’ve come to this timeless place because change is coming fast - mining speculation, tourism, climbing temperatures - all putting unprecedented pressure on this vast wilderness. If I saw that as a photo I’d think somebody had doctored it. But we haven’t. It’s like nothing else on earth. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to come here. It’s taken me half a lifetime, but Antarctica does not disappoint. If anything, it is even more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. And then there’s the sheer size of the place. The whole of continental Australia could vanish within the confines of this frozen continent. It’s suprising, then, that Australians like me know so little about the place. I think it’s time we got to know Antarctica a whole lot better. It’s a marvellous crowd isn’t it? To me it’s of Biblical proportions, like the Sermon on the Mount.

LOUISE: You should try counting them.

CHARLES WOOLEY: There’s no better barometer of Antarctica’s shifting fortunes than the Adelie penguin. It isn’t only one of the cutest creatures on the planet, but also one of the toughest. And Australian scientists Colin Southwell and Louise Emmerson devote their frozen summers to studying their every move.

COLIN: Adelies are very, very amusing animals to watch, and everyone who comes down here gets captivated by them.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Yeah, you can’t help laughing - not at them, but with them, I think.

LOUISE: But when they’re on land, they’re very amusing. When they’re in water they’re just stunning.

CHARLES WOOLEY: These penguins are fringe dwellers - only the rocky margins of Antarctica are suitable for breeding, because they build their nests out of the only available material: pebbles. Hard currency for penguins, worth recycling, and certainly worth stealing.

LOUISE: So these are about five weeks old at the moment, they hatch around this time.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Are they only five weeks old?

LOUISE: Yeah, five to six weeks old.

CHARLES WOOLEY: That’s very quick growing, isn’t it?

LOUISE: Yeah, Colin’s doing the calculations in his head.

COLIN: Yeah, it is quick growing, but everything that breeds down here has to fatten up really quickly.

CHARLES WOOLEY: A small window of opportunity.

COLIN: Very short breeding season.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And this breeding season has been a good one. Big Brother, a spy left out in the cold, capturing a daily snapshot of the colony’s population.

COLIN: What day you on now?

LOUISE: So, the 15th of October.

COLIN: Well, they should be coming any minute now.

LOUISE: Yeah, no, the 14th of October there’s a penguin there, and the 15th there’s quite a few, yeah.

COLIN: So they should come flooding in now.

LOUISE: Yep.

CHARLES WOOLEY: The scientists hope to set up 30 cameras at different rookeries, creating a digital record of the arrival of the first penguin, the first egg, the first chick. It’s a census-take of our southernmost homebuilders, and a key measure of how they’re faring. Where did everyone go in that shot?

LOUISE: Well, so this is what happens - the colony clears out at the end of the season.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Oh, that’s sad.

LOUISE: So we can look at when they arrive, when they depart, we can measure breeding success.

CHARLES WOOLEY: I’ve spent my lifetime rattling around the world, I don’t think I’ve been anywhere more remote then this.

TONY: It’s an amazing feeling. You know, way over there is Australia, across the Southern Ocean, and head that way and you get to the South Pole.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Dr Tony Fleming is Australia’s - indeed the world’s - largest land baron. No man on earth is responsible for running a bigger domain than the head of our Antarctic division.

TONY: And we’re very little specs in this entire continent.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And certainly that phrase ‘the ends of the earth’ has real meaning.

TONY: Yeah, absolutely. We’re at the southern end of the earth.

CHARLES WOOLEY: We claim 42% of Antarctica, but holding onto that claim comes with a massive price tag - over $120 million a year. Why should the Australian taxpayer watching this be happy that his money’s being spent here?

TONY: Because we’re gaining knowledge which is critical to the future of the planet. We better understand our climate systems, our ocean systems, our biological systems, because of what we do here.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And Australians have been coming here for a century - young men who performed outrageous and heroic feats of endurance in the quest to discover this quite literally awful place.

TONY: What they were doing though was sailing off the edge of the map. They didn’t have any satellite photos, they didn’t have any aerial views of what they were walking through.

CHARLES WOOLEY: They were going into the unknown.

TONY: They were going into the unknown in wooden ships, sailing ships which had very little power.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And not knowing when they’d get back?

TONY: No, absolutely. And some of them sadly didn’t get back.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Such a statement is profoundly personal for Tony Fleming. The fact he is alive at all is because his maternal grandfather Raymond Priestly survived the ill-fated Scott expedition by spending an Antarctic winter in an ice cave, eating seal blubber.

TONY: Now that I know what they did, and the consequences of what they did, it’s with great pride that I look back on that generation.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And it nicely closes the circle, and you’ll probably never have to spend a year in an ice cave.

TONY: Ah, well hopefully, hopefully not. I don’t think I’d survive that year.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Right now, I don’t know if I’m going to survive the day. I would say the weather’s changed.

CHRIS: The weather has changed, Charles, it’s got a lot windier, and it’s getting colder, and we’ve got to go to ground.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Chris Gallagher is putting me through my compulsory blizzard training.

CHRIS: Dig, dig, dig.

CHARLES WOOLEY: It’s solid ice. I have a matter of minutes to dig a trench and jump into a bivvy bag. What happens if I can’t do it?

CHRIS: Charles, if you can’t dig this hole in the next five minutes, you’re going to freeze to death.

CHRIS: Jump in, jump in. Pull it all in, over the top of you.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Oh. Welcome to the Hotel Antarctica.

CHRIS: How does that feel?

CHARLES WOOLEY: How do you bloody reckon? What’s the temperature out there?

CHRIS: Oh, it’s not too cold. It’s probably minus five.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Oh, well it’s only about minus four in here. Despite my protests, life in Antarctica is much easier than it’s ever been - with cooked meals, creature comforts, even home brewing. But by far the biggest change has been to the tyranny of distance.

MICKEY: Mate, welcome to runway 09.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Micky Loedemann is the man who’s helped usher in the jet age to the ice age - managing Australia’s 4 km ice runway in Antarctica now, only 4.5 hours from Hobart. This is a glacier -

MICKEY: This is a glacier, yeah.

CHARLES WOOLEY: You wouldn’t think you could land an aeroplane on it.

MICKEY: No, you wouldn’t think so, well we don’t land on this section. You can see the difference over here with the grooved section - we leave this blue ice so it stands out from a distance.

CHARLES WOOLEY: This is quite beautiful, isn’t it? How far down does it go?

MICKEY: 700 metres.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Ho ho. And flight FAO1 comes into view. And, unlike most airlines, right on time.

MICKEY: You just don’t expect to see aircraft that big in a place like this.

CHARLES WOOLEY: No. It’s scary.

MICKEY: It is scary. Nice work.

CHARLES WOOLEY: It’s spectacular.

MICKEY: It is spectacular. It normally pulls up in about 800 metres.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Well done Mickey, another safe landing.

MICKEY: Thanks very much Charles.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Well done.

MICKEY: Appreciate it. Excellent.

CHARLES WOOLEY: All that’s changing in Antarctica isn’t immediately apparent. Traditionally, the Adelie penguins only had to contend with predators – like killer whales and leopard seals. But today, with parts of Antarctica warming 10 times faster than the rest of the planet, climate change is becoming the penguins’ greatest challenge. And have you seen a decrease in population numbers?

LOUISE: On the Antarctic Peninsular, yeah. There’s been a decrease, quite a significant decrease.

CHARLES WOOLEY: What’s the order of the decline?

COLIN: Over in the Antarctica Peninsular, the populations seem to be declining about one to two per cent per annum.

CHARLES WOOLEY: Up to two per cent?

COLIN: It might not sound much -

CHARLES WOOLEY: No, it sounds a lot to me.

COLIN: - In one year, but over many years it can lead to large population declines.

CHARLES WOOLEY: So the Adelie penguin is a bit like his cousin, the canary in the coalmine, a key indicator of change. It’s a lovely day to go down to the seaside, isn’t it? It doesn’t get much warmer than this.

COLIN: It doesn’t get better than this. This is just about the best I’ve seen.

CHARLES WOOLEY: And discovering just what the future hold for this frozen frontier is all part of the challenge for those modern-day explorers -Australia’s scientists.

COLIN: Well, Antarctica is one of those places where there is so much that’s unknown that some of the most basic things we can still learn about.

CHARLES WOOLEY: So there are still things to be discovered.

LOUISE: Absolutely, and that’s what were doing - were going out there to discover those things.

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