Clowning around in a tuxedo at 50 below

December 16, 2005

Enduring the Antarctic winter is an experience not to be forgotten. Storms scour the frigid landscape in a perpetual night as temperatures drop to - 50C. For the past two Antarctic winters, I was among 20 research staff who worked and lived in this challenging setting. We endured this place as best we could, much like the sparse wildlife around us. The story of the emperor penguin, bravely facing the fierce far-South environment huddled together in large groups, is an amazing achievement captured by The March of the Penguins .

This French-produced film, originally titled La Marche de l'Empereur , documents a year in the life of the animals. It follows these rotund 1.2m-tall birds as they propel themselves like tuxedoed missiles out of the sea and waddle comically far into the frozen wastes. When eventually they congregate at the breeding colony, we get to see some remarkable penguin behaviour in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Refreshingly, we are not saturated with scientific jargon and statistics.

The imagery alone tells a compelling story that is nevertheless well complemented by Morgan Freeman's omniscient narration; enthralling and dramatic viewing without an overbearing scriptwriter in sight.

Nature, of course, does not need a script.J Life, death, hardship, suspense, exultation and grief are all there in bucketfuls. There is the predictable collective sigh as irresistibly appealing chicks fumble around on the ice. But Nature's not-so-cuddly side emerges when we are witness to frozen baby corpses and predators staking their claim.

There is a degree of anthropomorphism in the film, which is understandable, because we can relate to the penguins' bipedal behaviour. Just watching them walk or waddle is fascinating. Like us, they seem to spend an inordinate amount of time queuing in an orderly line. They strut, dance and fight over fertile mates. A dutiful parent is left looking after offspring while the other goes off in search of food.

There have been attempts by some to use the film to highlight social "family values". Admittedly, monogamous relationships and co-operation between adults during the breeding cycle is essential for the survival of their offspring. But this high degree of fidelity is only seasonal, and just one in ten couples get back together the following year.J Given the hardship and perils the emperor penguins have to go through, it amazes me that these animals survive and reproduce at all. My job in Antarctica was to maintain monitoring programmes on the Antarctic Peninsula. Animal populations can be an important barometer of climate change, so I couldn't help wondering if there was a reduction in the sea ice, would these breeding colonies be at risk?

I came away from the film enriched with beautiful images etched in my mind and new information about these incredible birds. It is inspiring to see life survive and do its thing even in the most extreme environment on the planet. The fundamental theme of "creation of life" combined with cute chicks and some slapstick moments are what make this film so endearing to large international audiences.

Luc Jacquet, the director, has clearly succeeded in revealing some of the wonders of Antarctica to cinemagoers. I hope that he has also helped them put some of the anthropogenic environmental issues associated with the region into perspective.

Andrew Miller is a marine biologist on the British Antarctic Survey.

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