Kirk Watson
Kirk Watson

The Only Movie Ever Filmed Entirely in Antarctica

Kirk Watson
Kirk Watson

The key to a good skull-drilling scene, Kirk Watson says, is chopped-up bits of bacon. “You mix it with the fake blood, which is red food coloring, syrup, and flour. That’s for when we had to make brains.”

Watson is an experienced mountaineer who has spent six of the past eight years acting as a field guide for Antarctic scientists, navigating dangerous glaciers and supervising freezing base camps. If he’s looking at brain matter, something has gone horribly wrong. But in 2012, he and colleague Matt Edwards decided to use their free time to shoot a horror film, South of Sanity, while stationed at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica. Though its plot—serial killer picks off hapless researchers at a remote outpost—is mundane, its production was anything but: Sanity is the first horror film ever filmed entirely at the bottom of the world.

After another field guide pulled out of a trip, Watson went to Antarctica on two weeks’ notice, taking his camera equipment and editing software with him. A documentary filmmaker, he had designs on shooting a feature-length movie. Working with Edwards, the two figured the production would be a good way to involve the 21 inhabitants of Rothera—a mix of marine biologists, mechanics, even a chef—in a communal project.

“Come winter, no one is really embarrassed in front of one another anymore,” he says. “I thought I could get some good acting.”

Filming a few days a week over a three-month period, Watson directed 14 amateur performers. While the majority of the movie was shot indoors, he had a few key scenes to shoot in the below-zero temperatures outside of the station. One “dead body” had to be edited out because it kept shivering; another actor grew very agitated because fake blood had leaked into his boot, causing his foot to dampen and freeze up.

“He wanted to go inside,” Watson chuckles, “but I kept doing take after take. He was quite annoyed, but it made his acting a lot better. His foot was supposed to have been chewed up by a snow blower.”

Essentially a one-man crew, Watson had a mechanic build a makeshift crane that could rise 25 feet in the air for more dynamic shots. Surprisingly, the cameras rarely failed despite the climate. “There was sometimes 3mm of ice on them, but they worked brilliantly,” he says. The problem was taking them back inside, where condensation quickly built up: Watson would wrap them in a plastic bin and let the moisture evaporate before resuming filming.  

For the “murders,” arterial spray was accomplished using syringes hooked up to tubing that researchers would operate off-screen. Their make-up department consisted of a face paint kit meant for kids. “You have to make do with what you have,” he says. “I found it quite funny when said our budget was a million dollars.”

Watson edited the film as he went along. It was eventually screened for Rothera Research during their annual film festival. (New arrivals found it fun to watch their co-workers get butchered in creative ways.) Sanity eventually had a premiere in Watson’s hometown in Scotland and a DVD and digital release on Amazon and iTunes stateside. Though reviews were mixed, Watson may have made the best possible film he could given the excruciating circumstances of hypothermic conditions and no budget.

“It’s not a particularly good film,” he says. “But it didn’t cost us a penny.”

All images courtesy of Kirk Watson.

Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Poop Visible From Space Helped Scientists Find a Remote 'Supercolony' of Penguins
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University
Rachael Herman, Louisiana State University, © Stony Brook University

Penguin poop visible from space just helped scientists discover a previously unknown, massive colony of Adélie penguins on a chain of remote Antarctic islands, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

In 2014, Stony Brook University's Heather Lynch and NASA's Mathew Schwaller identified guano stains in satellite images of the Danger Islands, a rocky archipelago off the Antarctic Peninsula. The visible guano marks signaled that a large population of penguins was living there. When the scientists launched an expedition to the islands to learn more, and counted birds by hand and with a camera-equipped drone, they discovered a "supercolony" of more than 1.5 million Adélies.

"Until recently, the Danger Islands weren't known to be an important penguin habitat," Lynch said in a press release. By this count, the islands are actually home to the largest population of the species on the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Danger Islands were discovered by British explorer James Clark Ross in 1842, and got their name from the fact that they are often hidden under ice. Ross and his crew almost crashed their ships on them—"appearing among heavy fragments of ice, they were almost completely concealed until the ship was nearly upon them," as the USGS's Geographic Names Information System explains. They're still hard to access and dangerous to visit because of the thick ice that surrounds them. And that makes them perfect for penguins.

Aerial shot from a quadcopter of penguin populations on Heroina Island.
Thomas Sayre McChord, Hanumant Singh, Northeastern University, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Penguins depend on sea ice for survival, and in places where sea ice is disappearing, their populations are declining. The western Antarctic Peninsula has seen huge declines in Adélie penguin populations as the ice has melted—up to 80 percent in some colonies since 1981, by one estimate. But because of the geographic variation in how climate change has affected temperatures, the population decline hasn't been the same everywhere, and other colonies have even grown. This new discovery tracks with Lynch's previous research, which has found that the impact of climate change on Antarctic penguins will be highly variable depending on the location.

“Just because a huge colony was just found doesn't mean that colonies in areas where sea ice isn't great aren't declining," University of Minnesota ecologist Michelle LaRue wrote in an email to Mental Floss. “If the sea ice conditions at the Danger Islands colony all of a sudden saw similar trends in sea ice decline, I would still expect that colony to decline, too." LaRue has worked with Lynch to study penguin populations before, but wasn't involved with this latest study.

The paper also shows how useful the combination of satellite, ground observation, and drones can be in counting penguins in remote areas. The drone was able to capture images like the one above every second as it flew over the island, creating 2D and 3D views of the whole area. This made their overall population count more accurate, which will aid researchers in tracking changes in the colony as time goes on.

King Penguin Populations Could Shrink By 70 Percent in 80 Years, Thanks to Climate Change

King penguins have evolved to live where few animals can. But now, warming waters are posing a threat to the species' survival. As an international team of researchers reports in the journal Nature Climate Change [PDF], rising global temperatures could eradicate 70 percent of the King penguin population by 2100.

Most of the 3.2 million King penguins alive today are settled in the ring of ocean between 45° and 55° south known as the Antarctic Polar Front. This region is a sweet spot for these penguins: It's where cold Antarctic waters collide with and slip beneath the warmer waters from higher latitudes, creating the perfect temperatures and salinity to support marine life. King penguins make camp on the islands dotting this belt and hunt for krill and fish in the surrounding sea.

But that abundant food source won't remain in the penguins' neighborhood for much longer. The study authors report that human-caused climate change is pushing the Antarctic Polar Front further south, creating a gap between the islands the penguins call home and the life-supporting waters they depend on for survival.

King penguins accomplish some incredible things to get a meal. Like other penguins, the couples will take turns caring for their young, with one parent waiting on land without food for several days and the other swimming hundreds of miles roundtrip gathering nourishment for the whole family. But as the Antarctic Polar Front drifts away from established penguin colonies, penguins will have to swim farther for their food, and parents and offspring will have to wait longer to eat, with many eventually starving to death.

By 2100 the islands with the biggest King penguin populations will have become uninhabitable, spurring the deaths of 1.1 million breeding pairs, about 70 percent of the species, unless they move elsewhere.

In order to survive, the threatened birds must find new islands that are ice-free with smooth sand or pebble beaches and that hover at temperatures around 32°F year-round, all while staying close to their migrating food source. Such habitats aren't be impossible to find, and King penguins have adapted in the face of dramatic climate shifts in the past. But unless swift action is taken towards fighting climate change, penguin numbers are on track to take a massive hit in the coming decades.


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