Let's Talk to Donal Manahan About Antarctica's Early Explorers

Part of the Antarctica: The Farthest Place Close to Home Curriculum Collection.

Donal is a marine biologist who is interested in animal physiology. He explores how animals live and thrive at very cold temperatures, particularly in the early stages of life. In his spare time, he likes to study the early stages of Antarctic exploration! Donal has a real interest in the early explorers and the history of Antarctica.

AMNH: Why should kids know about Antarctica?

Donal: Kids should know about Antarctica because it's one of the most extreme continent on this planet, with 70% of the world's fresh water, and because the ozone depletion is there. The Antarctic is like the canary in the coal mine: if we keep a watchful eye on it, we'll know if things such as global warming and climate are changing everywhere.

AMNH: How can students everywhere be good stewards of our least known continent?

Donal: Be careful about what you put into the environment and the ocean. Be a careful, educated consumer. We all need to question where the food we eat comes from. Perhaps it could be a school project to ask your local store, or restaurants such as McDonalds, if they are selling Antarctic fish. Active consumers can make a difference. For example, "dolphin-free tuna" happened because people spoke up.

Field of Study Marine Biology

Hometown Dublin, Ireland

Favorite Middle/High School Subjects Science was the "least painful."

Least Favorite Middle/High School Subjects English Composition

Thoughts on Middle/High School "I hated English Composition. My parents got so frustrated with me, just staring at a blank page, unable to come up with an idea. It would take me half a day to write something. Now it's my bread and butter. I have to write up papers about all of my work."

Interests in Middle/High School Snorkeling off the coast. "There are wonderful lush kelp forests in the Irish sea, and I loved to fool around exploring them with my friends."

Interests Today "If you find a job that's interesting, then your profession becomes your hobby. Even in my time off I like to do things related to my work. I also enjoy playing the guitar, camping, boating, and scuba diving."

Life Lessons from the Field "You need discipline... in your training and meeting deadlines and doing things that you don't necessarily enjoy in order to get to do the exciting parts of the job."

Major Influences "My uncle encouraged me to take a job doing something that interested me, or even volunteer for free, rather than trying to make money. That was the best advice, to find something that excites you and do that. It will help you much more than making an extra dollar."

Kids Son, six years old, and daughter, four years old

Number of Trips to Antarctica So Far Ten

AMNH: What's your most exciting memory of the place?

Donal: The first time I walked into Scott's primitive hut from 1902, sitting out on the ice. Our big American base equipped with so much–heat, horticulture, a full modern library–was just 100 yards away. There, frozen in time, was his simple hut with all of his things left just as they were when he was there. It was fascinating to think that his work was not so different from ours.

AMNH: What are some life lessons that you carry with you from your research?

Donal: You need discipline. You must be serious about your training and meeting deadlines and doing things that you don't necessarily enjoy in order to have the opportunities to do the exciting parts of the job. Also I think it's important to think about the next level of life. What do you see yourself doing five or ten years from now? In Antarctica I always room with a man who is in his sixties. I enjoy talking and learning from someone at the next level.

AMNH: What do your children think of your work?

Donal: I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old. I think they're excited about my work. I've sent images back to their school so they can see what it's like down here. We miss each other when I'm away! For Father's Day my son made me a penguin out of Legos, and he put it in the freezer so that it would be cold when he gave it to me.

AMNH: What were early theories about what Antarctica was like?

Donal: The theories weren't at all what I would have expected. The Greeks postulated that there would be a land mass there. There was a sense in northern Europe that it was going to be like a heaven on Earth. They even thought it might be warm, even after James Cook's expedition in the 1700's couldn't penetrate the ice pack. They were really hoping for the ideal–something pristine and untouched after the dirt and grime brought on by the Industrial Revolution. There was a real push to discover and map places after the Renaissance, but mapping Antarctica did not start in earnest until the end of the 1800's. At an influential congress on geography in 1895, they said that the biggest mapping of the unknown still to be done was Antarctica. That's really recent.

AMNH: Do you think Palmer really was the first person to visit the Antarctic?

Donal: Probably not. It's the same kind of thing as Columbus getting to North America. Certainly no one was living on Antarctica, but sealers or someone else might have seen it.

AMNH: What motivated early explorers?

Donal: By the end of the 1800's, the Antarctic continent was the last remaining unknown. That's really the simple answer. The other major milestones–like finding the source of the Nile, and mapping the other continents–had all been reached. In Victorian England, geographic exploration was really a huge thing, and there was a whole seventh continent to explore. Mapping it, or just being there first, was really important. Now when it comes to pure exploration, the space program is the closest analogy.

AMNH: How does that compare to the modern exploration of Antarctica?

Donal: Back in the 1950's geopolitical influence may have been a factor, but now science is absolutely the driving force behind activity in Antarctica. In present time, we have few heroes of exploration, except those of the space age.

AMNH: Why did it take so long to find Antartica?

Donal: The impenetrable ice pack is really the answer. And even when you got through that, which Ross managed to do in the 1830's with luck from the weather, you come up on the glacier walls of the continental ice sheet. Then how are you possibly going to travel across that cold desert? They didn't have helicopters Imagine arriving in Los Angeles by boat and having to cross an ice barrier to reach Boston. You have no vehicle, no river like Lewis and Clark took, no easy way. You have to WALK across a frozen wasteland, with no food or fuel along the way, backpacking everything. It would be hard to get even to the Rockies.

AMNH: When were Huskies last used?

Donal: Maybe in the 1960's or 1970's. New Zealand used them for a while. The last husky there is actually in a museum in Christchurch now.

AMNH: How did the early explorers commuincate with the outside world?

Donal: They didn't. The rest of the world only knew what had happened when the ship came back. New Zealand became the place where news broke. When Scott's ship was returning, everyone was in New Zealand to greet them. When they saw the ship flying death flags, they knew something had happened.

AMNH: What tools are resources were available to them?

Donal: The most important difference in equipment between then and now is clothing. They used heavy wool gabardine. Now, we have lightweight clothing, mostly synthetic, that doesn't tire you out and keeps you warmer. The other thing about synthetic fibers is that you don't sweat as much. What really gets you cold is when you sweat and get wet on the inside. Cotton is the worst; it gets wet quickly and does not keep you warm. In Antarctica they call it the death cloth. Scott, Shackleton, they always wore wool. Another difference is navigation. Satellites have made Antarctica more accessible to those who are not expert navigators, like me. But it's safe to say satellite technology wouldn't have helped the early explorers that much, because they were such good navigators. They rarely got lost. The third difference would be rapid travel. An important part of the U.S. program is access to heavy aircraft. Instead of taking a ship and hiking over land into the South Pole, we can get there in three hours.

AMNH: What problems did they encounter along the way?

Donal: Cold, basic physical exhaustion because they did a lot of man-hauling (dragging loads on sleds behind them). They also often had shortages of food, fuel, and fresh water.

AMNH: How did they get water?

Donal: They'd melt down a hunk of ice. This uses a lot of fuel, and they had to carry all their fuel with them. Remember how dry it is in Antarctica. We're drinking all the time to stay hydrated. They weren't able to do that; they only had water at meal times, when they could melt it. That was a big issue in the Arctic too. They call it the Arctic thirst–slow death from dehydration. The explorer Nansen helped there. He developed an efficient cooker that melts snow in an outside compartment while it cooks food on the inside. He developed it in the late 1890's when he was trying to get to the North Pole.

AMNH: Who do you personally admire most about Antarctic explorers?

Donal: Even though it's not a very popular point of view, I admire Scott very much. Others think he was a fool and didn't plan well; they focus on his logistical mistakes. He doesn't get enough credit for having the vision to bring great scientists with him. The scientific exploration done on his South Pole expedition was incredible. Amundsen, in contrast, brought nothing. But for strict exploration, Amundsen was really best. He was a phenomenal explorer. Unlike Scott, who tried to do too much all at once, Amundsen simplified his expedition to the South Pole and pulled it off. In terms of overall bravado and tenacity, for making it happen, staying alive, dealing with all adversarial situations, Shackleton of course. I couldn't name the one I admire most. There's an analogy here to the space program. Scientists wanted more and more equipment and experiments to go to the moon. NASA just wanted to get there first. We simplified the mission and we made it. Scott was trying to do world-class science. His country expected it–the U.K. was really a leader in science at the time.