Book review – A Polar Affair: Antarctica’s Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins

7-minute read

This has to be a story worthy of the name “scoop of the century”. Penguin biologist Lloyd Spencer Davis has been studying mating behaviour in Adelie penguins since 1977, carefully documenting how penguins are far from the paragons of monogamy that they were long held to be. That is until 2012 when an unpublished manuscript comes to light showing that somebody beat him to the punch… by more than six decades! A certain George Murray Levick carefully documented the same penguin antics that Davis would later build his career on. But who was this Levick? And why did he never publish his observations? Join Davis for a most unlikely story of polar exploration, penguins, and perversion.

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A Polar Affair: Antarctica’s Forgotten Hero and the Secret Love Lives of Penguins, written by Lloyd Spencer Davis, published by Pegasus Books in October 2019 (hardback, 382 pages)

George Murray Levick was part of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1910-1913 expedition to reach the South Pole. While Scott’s team was racing the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen to be the first to plant a flag at the bottom of the world, Levick was part of a team that stayed behind at their base camp at the edge of Antarctica. To while away the long, cold days he started observing the Adelie penguins with whom they shared the spit of ice-free land, quite by accident becoming the world’s first penguin biologist. Much like Davis would do decades later, he observed that especially males are far from monogamous; they engage in homosexual behaviour, hump dead bodies, and molest females. But females are no angels either, dumping males when they do not return from sea in a timely fashion to feed their chick, or trading sex for stones to build their nests with. As Davis explains, given the short breeding season these are all behaviours for which there are sensible biological explanations.

Levick would write up his findings in the 1914 book Antarctic Penguin: A Study of Their Social Habits with which Davis is intimately familiar. What Davis did not know is that Levick left out his most salacious observations, which were instead written down in a short unpublished manuscript that was considered too offensive to Victorian morals. A small print run of 100 copies, labelled “not for publication”, was printed for internal circulation at the British Museum of Natural History but quickly forgotten. Until, that is, 2012 when a librarian at the museum finds a copy and publishes it with a commentary in the journal Polar Record.

This unlikely chain of events forms the starting point of A Polar Affair where we accompany Davis as he tries to learn all he can about Levick and his observations, leading him to Levick’s original notebook containing passages furtively written in secret code. But the book is about much more than just Levick and horny penguins – we do not actually get to these until page 160. Davis describes at length all the other people who are part of the grand adventure in which Levick took part: the infamous race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen and the people who in turn inspired them, including explorers such as Ernest Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, and Robert Peary.

“Much like Davis would do decades later, [Levick] observes that especially males are far from monogamous; they engage in homosexual behaviour, hump dead bodies, and molest females. But females are no angels either […]”

I was already familiar with some of these people; Shackleton’s expeditions came up in my review of Erebus while the recently reviewed The Ice at the End of the World introduced me to Nansen, Peary and other Greenland explorers. Ironically, I was less familiar with the better-publicised stories of Scott and Amundsen. Since the 2011-2012 centenary of the race to the South Pole you could fill a small library with books about these two: see e.g. Scott of the Antarctic and The Last Viking for biographies, while the London Natural History Museum published two entry-level books with Scott’s Last Expedition and Race to the End. More in-depth are The Last Place on Earth and Race for the South Pole that, uniquely, contains Scott’s and Amundsen’s expedition diaries side by side. An Empire of Ice, meanwhile, places this era in a wider context. And this is on top of all the books that the various people participating in these expeditions wrote upon their return.

Davis intertwines all these storylines, chronicling the extraordinary hardships on the ice, the triumph of Amundsen’s party arriving first, the tragedy of Scott’s party arriving second and then succumbing to cold and hunger on their return journey, and the astonishing feat of survival when a side-quest by Levick and five others goes awry and results in them having to overwinter on the Antarctic ice sheet for nine months with virtually no food reserves or suitable gear. He furthermore mixes in anecdotes of his own penguin research over the decades with the story of Levick’s observations, which make for fascinating reading.

“The book is about much more than just Levick and horny penguins […] Davis describes at length all the other people who are part of the grand adventure in which Levick took part: the infamous race for the South Pole”

The resulting patchwork becomes a bit chaotic in places, as Davis keeps switching between storylines and time periods within each chapter. Some memory aids in the form of a map with all the locations and routes, a timeline, or short biographies of the main actors would have been helpful. Nevertheless, the story is so darn fascinating and unlikely that I could not stop reading.

Davis is outspoken, explicit in his description of penguin sexual behaviour, and does not avoid strong language. I personally do not mind and thought he was hilariously crass in places, especially when talking penguin biology. Starting right on page 3: “Survival of the fittest is really a euphemism for survival of those who fuck the most“, or later: “males will bonk anything that comes within a flipper’s length“. But he similarly gleefully draws parallels between the penguins and the explorers, showing that the latter were not necessarily upstanding characters either, many having affairs at every turn. His description of Amundsen and Sigrid Castberg’s first tryst (“she kisses him and the last piece of the ice shelf that has kept this man so stiff and removed from feminine involvement melts away […] for a moment [he] becomes a bowing, immensely grateful male penguin in her hands“) more than reeks of a bit of artistic license but, again, cracked me up.

I was more shocked by his frustration with Levick post-expedition. Levick never looked back on his time in Antarctica, and Davis admits that he so badly wanted him to be more of an inspiration that he judges Levick rather harshly for his choices, at one point even admonishing him for his lack of empathy when writing a stiff, formal note to go on a funerary wreath with a brusque: “for fuck’s sake Levick, is that the best you can do?

“[Davis is] hilariously crass in places, especially when talking penguin biology”

I am sure that some biologists will cringe at Davis’s liberal use of anthropomorphising terms such as “divorce”, “rape”, and “prostitution”, though he lampoons the multisyllabic alternatives biologists use. With everything else going on, the book is also rather thin on factual information on penguins. Readers might want to turn to Davis’s book Professor Penguin for more on his research (or to Strycker’s similar book Among Penguins), an introductory book such as Penguins: The Animal Answer Guide, the more serious Poyser monograph The Penguins that Davis co-authored, or the recent Penguins: Natural History and Conservation.

Despite the above, A Polar Affair is an engrossing book. The details of the race for the pole are extraordinary by themselves, but the penguin subplot gives it a further twist, even if Davis can never quite work out whether Levick was muzzled upon return or chose to censor himself. An unusual and colourful page-turner that is recommended if you enjoyed provocative books such as The Myth of Monogamy or Sex at Dawn. It had me in stitches more than once.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

A Polar Affair paperback, hardback, ebook, audiobook or audio CD

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:






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