The coldest place on Earth. The windiest. The driest. The kind of home only a penguin could love.
There is a tendency to think of Antarctica as a mysterious landscape of endless superlatives — a kind of geographic caricature. By international agreement, nobody resides permanently on the planet’s southernmost continent. As a consequence, only a handful of scientists and support staff have personally experienced Antarctica’s extreme landscapes and bountiful wildlife for any length of time since its discovery in 1820.
Beginning Friday, Sept. 3, however, audiences will have the opportunity to embark on a cinematic journey to one of Earth’s wildest, most misunderstood locales when Antarctica 3D begins screening at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater.
Narrated by Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange, Sherlock), this gorgeous Antarctic epic was produced by the giant-screen experts at BBC Earth and SK Films. For 45 minutes, the IMAX 3D Theater’s six-story screen will serve as a portal to unspoiled vistas and incredible animal life above and below the ice, from vast swarms of Krill and massive colonies of penguins to breaching Humpback Whales and the brutal majesty of a Leopard Seal on the hunt.
Given the many assumptions about Antarctica’s rugged inhospitality, filmmakers say it was paramount to show how diverse, abundant and fragile an ecosystem it really is.
“You look out from the side of the boat and there are Killer Whales, Minke Whales, Humpback Whales, Sei Whale and then pods of penguins swimming as well,” says producer Jonny Keeling, recalling the film crew’s arrival in Antarctic waters. “It was a constant stream of animals.”
"What I loved is … that they aren’t afraid of us at all,” he adds. “It’s great for the giant screen because you can get really nice and close, and it makes it feel intimate, like you’re actually there.”
The extraordinary scenes in Antarctica 3D will be an eye-opening introduction to the continent for most audience members. However, for Dr. James McClintock, the film offers familiar — albeit stunningly captured — views of a place that’s almost a second home.
An endowed university professor of polar and marine biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dr. McClintock first visited Antarctica in 1982. That three-month visit to the French sub-Antarctic island of Kerguelen left him “irreparably hooked” on Antarctica’s marine biology.
Now regarded as a world-renowned expert on Antarctic marine ecology, McClintock has returned to the southernmost continent 30 times. There, he has researched the rich and diverse life on the Antarctic seafloor and, later, how rapid climate change is impacting those communities.
“Over the years and my many visits to ‘the ice,’ my relationship to Antarctica has deepened,” he says. “I have great respect for its beauty and the paradox of its apparent might and its deep ecological fragility.”
Dr. McClintock and a team of researchers are racing against time to document the remarkable sea life thriving in the frigid waters surrounding Palmer Research Station, perched on an island along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. While studying marine invertebrates, they have discovered a chemical compound in a sea squirt that holds promise to fight the most deadly form of skin cancer.
“This compound reduces the activity of a key enzyme that is involved in triggering melanoma skin cancer,” said Dr. McClintock. “The compound is very potent. Only a small amount is needed, sparing healthy cells from being destroyed.”
Dr. McClintock and his colleagues have also found a red algae that produces a potent compound which works against several different flu viruses. “It prevents several different strains, such as the H1N1 virus, from attaching to human cells,” said Dr. McClintock.
In 2012, Dr. McClintock published his second book, Lost Antarctica: Adventures in a Disappearing Land. In it, he offers a first-hand account of his time and experiences in Antarctica and how it is responding to climate shifts. Dr. McClintock will be at the Chattanooga premiere of Antarctica 3D on Thursday, Sept. 2, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss his work in Antarctica after the premiere screening.
Although he has spent more time there than almost anyone on the planet, Dr. McClintock says the filmmakers have managed to capture Antarctica’s beauty in ways that still manage to take his breath away.
“The film provides a masterful painting and interpretation of the continent’s biodiversity, natural wonders and surprising fragility,” he says. “One of the opening scenes is a diver swimming along filming the seafloor near McMurdo Station, the U.S. station where I worked for ten years and also swam under the sea ice. Captured on film, it is as if one was there — a breathtaking, unearthly experience.”
After their cinematic voyage to the Antarctic wilds concludes, guests can build upon their newfound love and appreciation of the southernmost continent by visiting the Tennessee Aquarium. In conditions far less challenging than those faced by the Antarctica 3D film crew, they’ll be able to observe the impressive underwater agility of a colony of Gentoo and Macaroni Penguins rocketing through 42-degree water in the Penguins’ Rock gallery.
Tickets to see Antarctica 3D are $8 for all ages. The film is presented locally by CHI Memorial and has a runtime of about 45 minutes.
More info about Antarctica 3D and a screening schedule is available at tnaqua.org/imax/antarctica-3d/.
For more information about Dr. McClintock, visit his university faculty page at uab.edu/cas/biology/people/faculty/james-b-mcclintock.
Check out an always-online live video feed from the Tennessee Aquarium’s Penguins’ Rock gallery at https://tnaqua.org/live/penguins-rock/