When Midge Raymond went on an expedition with naturalists to Antarctica, the trip ended up changing her life.
She not only stopped eating seafood because of her concern for penguins, but the 2004 journey served as the inspiration for her new novel, "My Last Continent," which was released by Scribner this week.
The Ashland author traveled on a boat that carried about 100 people. But increasingly, large cruise ships were venturing into the frigid, iceberg-filled waters.
"The naturalists on board were talking about cruise ships starting to come to the Antarctic," Raymond said. "If something were to happen to a cruise ship, it would be a disaster because of the ice, cold water, isolation and distance from any help. It's not like the Caribbean, where there are other ships all around if something goes wrong."
Raymond used those concerns as the starting point for her book's plot. A large cruise ship called the Australis scrapes against an iceberg and begins slowly sinking. The main character, penguin researcher Deb Gardner, is aboard a small research boat a full day's travel away, while the love of her life, fellow researcher Keller Sullivan, is a member of the Australis crew.
Raymond will speak about her suspense-filled novel from 9 to 10 a.m. Monday, June 27, on Jefferson Public Radio's "Jefferson Exchange" program. She will have a reading and signing at 7 p.m. the same day at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St., Ashland.
Raymond launches her book quickly, letting readers know a cruise ship collision with ice has led to hundreds of deaths. Exactly who lives and dies remains a mystery until the end.
A shifting timeline with plenty of flashbacks fills in the characters' lives — gradually revealing the very different reasons why Deb and Keller choose to travel to the most isolated continent on Earth and struggle to make a permanent connection with each other.
Both use their scientific training to study penguins, but must also babysit inexperienced tourists, serving as naturalists aboard ships in order to hitch rides to Antarctica.
"She's conflicted," Raymond said of her main character. "She has to play tour guide in order to get to the penguins she loves and wants to study."
Raymond said Deb's conflicted state of mind mirrored her own after she returned from Antarctica. She worried about the environmental impact of her trip there, and also decided to give up seafood because of the impact of overfishing on penguins. Ultimately, she became a vegan.
At the same time, the trip made her more aware of how her actions back in America could have global implications and increased her concern for animals and the environment. She is co-founder and co-editor of Ashland Creek Press, which publishes fiction and non-fiction books about the environment, animal protection, wildlife and ecology.
Raymond said being so close to penguins was a fascinating experience. In addition to traveling to Antarctica, she spent almost two weeks helping researchers count Galapagos and Magellanic penguins off the coast of South America.
"They would come really close and sometimes peck at you. They were usually curious or they would ignore you. They're pretty calm about it. Some would hurry by," she said.
Raymond said seeing the occasional dead penguin was upsetting, and she had to resist the urge to shoo away skuas, birds that prey on penguins.
"You have to remind yourself that's just the way nature works," she said. "It's not pretty."
Raymond said her journeys and the research she did for her book increased her respect and appreciation for the real-life scientists who work in harsh environments studying penguin species.
"They're doing amazing work," she said.
For more information about "My Last Continent," visit www.midgeraymond.com.