The tale of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition is one of triumph, defeat, perseverance, death, and penguin sex. Details of this legendary adventure are still coming to light as artifacts belonging to the crew continue to be discovered, and a set of notebooks belonging to one of the central characters are now to be made physically and digitally available by the Natural History Museum in London.
Dr George Murray Levick served as a surgeon and zoologist on Scott’s famous Terra Nova expedition, which set off in 1910 with a number of scientific objectives, while also pitting the captain in a race to become the first man to reach the south pole. Scott and four members of his crew reached the landmark on January 17, 1912, only to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to the punch by 34 days.
Scott and his companions all died on their way back to camp, while Levick remained at Cape Adare in order to study the world’s largest Adélie penguin colony – becoming the first person ever to observe the full breeding cycle of this species. However, the sexual depravity he witnessed while Scott was away on his fatal excursion shocked Levick so much that he decided to describe it using Greek alphabet code in order to spare readers from disgust.
Aside from unexpected sexual behaviors such as homosexual intercourse and sex between unpaired individuals, Levick also recorded outright debauchery in the form of necrophilia, forceful sexual coercion, and sexual abuse of chicks.
The previously unpublished notebooks contain all of Levick's scientific notes and observations from his time at Cape Adare. Image: Unknown/Natural History Museum, London
Before returning home, he and other members of the expedition were forced to spend eight months living in a cave, eating blubber and birds that they managed to hunt, after the early return of pack ice made it impossible for the Terra Nova ship to pick them up. As if that weren’t enough of an ordeal, Levick then had to walk some 200 miles (322 kilometers) back to home camp.
Upon returning to Britain in 1913 he published a paper detailing his observations of Adélie penguins, though descriptions of the birds’ sexual misdemeanors were omitted as they were deemed too vulgar. Levick then revealed all in a pamphlet, which remained unpublished but was privately distributed among a handful of experts. Only when a copy of this brochure was discovered in 2012 did the sexual exploits of Adélies become public knowledge.
The notebooks acquired by the Natural History Museum contain all of Levick’s scientific notes and observations from his time in Cape Adare. Douglas Russell, a senior curator in the museum’s Bird Group, said in a statement that “Levick’s notebooks place us right beside this extraordinary explorer in the harsh Antarctic of 1911.”
“The area that Levick studied around Ridley Beach, Cape Adare is home to the world’s largest Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) colony. These notebooks are especially interesting as recent research suggests the Ridley Beach colony will probably be abandoned in the near future due to rising sea levels in this region.”