In 2000, painter/photographer/explorer J.J. L’Heureux made her first trip to Antarctica with the intention of photographing snowy landscapes for a white-on-white color field series. Instead, she found herself fascinated by the wildlife and still returns each season to expand her collection.

It was on one of those trips she also photographed Sir Ernest Shackleton’s campsite at Cape Royds from the 1907 Nimrod Expedition, which was eerily just as he left it. While Shackleton’s main goal was to be the first to get to the South Pole (harsh conditions prevented them from making it all the way), his team also collected meteorological and geographical data and observed cracks in the vast ice shelves protruding from the continent.   

With unexpected timeliness, a new Houston Museum of Natural Science exhibit Faces from the Southern Ocean showcases L'Heureux's photography as increased attention turns toward Antarctica, the world’s most rapidly warming region where an ice block the size of Delaware is expected to break off any day now.  

HMNS spokesperson Latha Thompson says the coordination wasn't intentional; the museum plans exhibits far in advance. “It just happened to work out that way.” 

Regardless, Thompson says the exhibit has so done well for them, they’ve decided to extend it to April 15, 2018. 

“[L'Heureux's] work is really cool because she also photographed Shackleton’s hut, where they stayed and tried to survive, so that had really never been photographed before,” Thompson says.  “That’s a really cool thing to see in its entirety like that. Also, all the photos of penguins and other animals really offer a new perspective that is fun to see.”

After spending so much time in the Houston heat, it’s hard to imagine being in a place like Antarctica, where overwhelming shades of white are accompanied by a silence that is only interrupted by icy winds and the occasional calls of wildlife. 

That's why HMNS intends to use these photographs and other methods to immerse visitors in the full Antarctic experience. For example, visitors can interact with Antarctica’s wildlife through an augmented reality screen in Glassell Hall or purchase a ticket to see Penguins 3D in the Giant Screen Theater. If lucky, they might even get to meet Gus —a very large and friendly penguin who has managed to secure a summer internship roaming around Cullen Grand Hall.  

But don’t let the cuteness distract you: While the displaced ice itself will not cause a rise in sea levels, it will no longer be able to act as a barrier preventing inland glaciers from pouring directly into the ocean. Many worry that the break might create such instability that it will cause the collapse of the entire Larson C ice shelf; Larson A and B have already completely collapsed. The melting of ice also presents unpredictable biodiversity issues for the wildlife photographed by J.J L’Heureaux. 

Which begs the question: While Gus the penguin seems to be enjoying his time in Houston, will he be allowed to extend his internship visa if things down south go...well, south?  

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