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  • Writer's pictureJuan Pablo Culasso

My route to Antarctica, the Continent of Sounds

How I became a Nature Sound Recordist

I did not know it, but January 16, 2003, would not be just another day like any other in my life. On that typical Uruguayan summer day, I pressed the REC key of a tape recorder. With that simple movement of my index finger, my life took a 180-degree turn that would completely change my goals. That's because it was not just another key, in my right hand I had a microphone and in front of me, a kingfisher. It was the first time I had recorded the song of a bird. I had no idea of the transformations that were provoked in that fraction of a second. I did not know that, by pressing that key, my life would change forever.

Twelve years later, recording the sounds of nature became my main work activity. Through these recordings, I share experiences, experiences and stories in various courses and conferences that I give. There is no more comforting sensation than sharing the knowledge of what I love so much.

However, more than a job, I consider capturing the sounds of nature an art. For me they are like photographs, but unlike those taken with a camera, mine are dynamic. The bird may be singing, flapping its wings, making noise with its beak; all those details will be meticulously recorded forever. Just by pressing a key.

Perhaps because I was born blind, I have developed a greater sensitivity to the sounds around me. I also had a good musical education, which makes me use the auditory sense in a more specific and intense way. My world is built by sounds and one thing leads to another. The music that nature creates daily in any place is worthy of a top composer like Chopin or Mozart. It does not mean that a person who sees is not apt to develop the same sensitivity. Possibly it is more difficult, after all, the sense of sight, at times, acts as a limiter of the other senses.

Juan Pablo Culasso in Brazil

My father had a job opportunity in Brazil and that is how in 2005 a fundamental stage in the development of my career began. Emigrating is never easy, not even when the destination is a neighboring country. In May of that year we moved to the city of Campinas, in the state of São Paulo. Unknown city, unknown language and customs, unknown people. However, a great opportunity awaited me. The late Professor Jacques Vielliard opened the doors of the Neotropical Sound Archive at the state university of Campinas UNICAMP without restrictions, so that I could study. I had the privilege of learning with one of the most important references in nature sound recording, and that is priceless.

In 2006 I found out by chance that there would be an event in the city of São Paulo, which would gather birdwatchers (Avistar Brasil), that's when I met Guto Carvalho, organizer of the event and one of the main references of the activity in Brazil. I had no idea that some years later, I would be invited as a lecturer and instructor in several national and regional editions of this congress where I made many friends who opened many doors for me.

In 2014 I was selected by National Geographic to represent Uruguay in the Super Cerebros talent contest. Winning this competition gave me opportunities that I could not have imagined before: conferences in various countries of the region, sound courses, as well as pressing that REC key in dreamed places. For these reasons, I consider my long journey in Brazil, one of the pillars that caused my consolidation in this area. Naturally, my father's unconditional support was the main factor for me to continue without ever giving up.

I had just one dream that I was unable to fulfill: to graduate in Biology. Unfortunately, even today there is still a lot of prejudice and unwillingness to make it possible for blind people to have more options when it comes to becoming professionals. In Brazil and in Latin America, professional opportunities are practically limited to humanities courses.

They impose limits on us, but in reality they are the ones who are limited, and we are not allowed to obtain a diploma in the area of knowledge we have a vocation for.

Juan Pablo Culasso in Antarctica

The first time I really understood what Antarctica was when I read "Scott's Diary". The descriptions of beauty and misfortune, adventure and misfortune, life and death, joy and sorrow captured on every page showed me what the white continent was really like. Then, after I had beaten Super Cerebros, I wrote a project to the Uruguayan Antarctic Institute proposing a work related to the recording of sounds in those latitudes. This because I had no conditions to visit that place as a tourist, because besides being an expensive trip, I did not meet the necessary requirements to bring the work to fruition.

It was an immense satisfaction to have the project approved and therefore to receive the invitation to carry out the expedition.

The objective of the work was to record all possible sound manifestations. From the wind that makes the Uruguayan flag flutter on the mast at the base, to the soft drop of melting water. In that fan, I also recorded penguin colonies, petrels, seals, melting icebergs, cracking ice, the sound of snow. For this work, I used two recorders and at least a dozen microphones, wind attenuation structures and a parabolic reflector to capture sounds at great distances. One of the microphones was adapted by the manufacturer to perform well in such extreme conditions. This type of technology was fundamental when I was recording seals at -25C.

My father accompanied me on this campaign, me with my microphones and him with his camera, recording every movement. During the expedition our home was the Artigas Antarctic Scientific Base located on King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, at the 62nd parallel. We arrived on December 3, 2015, nature welcomed us with winds of 70 kilometers per hour and a temperature of -25C. For the season of the year we were there, there was no night, it was 24 hours of natural daylight. We said until tomorrow at 11 o'clock at 'night' and as we left for the dormitories, the daylight felt like mid-afternoon. Just stepping foot in that place is enough to understand.

Each day was carefully planned as the weather there is very changeable. A morning of blue sky (an absolute rarity) could quickly turn into a snowfall or a wind that seemed to break your bones. For that reason, when moving away from the base, we always went with a radio to establish communication and in more complicated situations, such as the way to Drake Strait, we were guided by a member of the base crew who already had prior knowledge of the place to explore. It would not have been a good feeling to step on some unstable ice slab and have it break under our feet.....

It was not an easy campaign. The long walks on soft snow, sometimes knee-deep, were a great challenge. It is impossible to even compare it to what a day in the rainforest is like. Walking in the snow you never know if on the next step, you are going to be buried up to your waist, as happened to me, or what it feels like to walk on the ice and hear the cracking and think, is it going to break or not? Those were wonderful challenges to be experienced. Naturally it is not for everyone, you need a good dose of patience, good humor and be ready for anything unexpected.

Antarctica is not a continent so rich in fauna if I compare it to the exuberance of the Atlantic Forest. However, the sounds I encountered were absolutely different from anything I had heard before. The rustling wings of the Wilson's Petrel, the intense communication sounds of the Chinstrap penguins, plus the impressive vocalization of the elephant seal.

Today I prefer quality to quantity. I really don't care about the number of species. I gain more by recording a single sound for a longer time than by compulsively searching for a wider variety. It is preferable to have ten records of very high quality than 50 of acceptable quality.

The soundscape in those latitudes was incredible. This is because Antarctica is music. The ice speaks, the sea speaks, the snow speaks, it is only a matter of knowing how to listen. But unfortunately, man-made noise pollution has already reached there: patrol boats, airplanes and helicopters. It is not something that happens all the time, however, when one travels so far away one becomes more intolerant to those noises.

It is impossible to transform into words the great happiness I felt when I recorded the elephant seal, after a very hard walk to the colony and, upon returning to the base, listening to the record and really feeling that the 10 seconds it lasted were worth the ten kilometers round trip.

On the other hand, I also had a somewhat unpleasant feeling at the end of the campaign, realizing how much we are destroying everything around us without measuring the consequences. The penguin colony I recorded is one of the most contaminated in Antarctica by heavy metals. It seems that everywhere we go, we leave our negative footprint. A pity. When I set foot on the white continent, I didn't have the typical reaction of conquest, "I've arrived, I'm finally here", but I did have the feeling of desecrating something that doesn't belong to us. Every sound I recorded, I want to believe, was a gift from Antarctic nature.

It was 53 days of magic, effort, gratitude, gifts and unforgettable experiences. Likewise, Antarctica needs to be protected. It is a continent sensitive to any kind of activity. For now it is safe by the Madrid Protocol, but I fear that near its expiration date, Antarctica will sadly be the protagonist of the darkest designs.

My work is purely artistic. In the meantime, I follow some guidelines from Cornell University to catalog the recordings in the Macaulay library, the main online repository of nature sounds.

It is in this way that the art of recording in nature is the way to disseminate and therefore, to show the public the wonders that surround us from another angle. Art and conservation together through the song of a bird, the sound of a waterfall, the melting of ice.

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