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The Curious Life of Krill

by Stephen Nicol (Island Press)

Shortlisted for The Margaret Scott Prize

About the author

Stephen Nicol is a scientist who has spent his entire professional life working with krill in the Antarctic, as well as in Canada and South Africa. Nicol was born in Ireland and had an eclectic education in England, the United States, Scotland, and Canada. He has published extensively on many aspects of krill biology, on the management of the krill fishery, on the Southern Ocean ecosystem, as well as on more esoteric aspects of human interactions with krill. He worked for the Australian government’s Antarctic Division for twenty-four years as a research scientist and as a program leader. During that time, he also served on Australia’s delegation to the international commission that manages Antarctica’s fisheries. He was awarded the Australian Antarctic medal for his services to Antarctic research in 2011. He led four major voyages to Antarctica and has participated in four others.

In 2011 he retired and enrolled in a master’s degree program in creative writing, which resulted in several published short stories, photographic essays, and travel articles—and the book the Curious Life of Krill published in 2018. The book was shortlisted for the UNSW Bragg Prize for Science Writing and two of his short stories have been shortlisted for the Tasmanian Writer’s Prize.


The Curious Life of Krill by Stephen NicolKrill is a word that many people are familiar with but few could specifically identify what a krill was. This book sets out to provide an introduction to krill and to their importance in the Antarctic ecosystem. Krill are relatively large (up to 6 cm in length) free-swimming crustaceans that are the central organisms in many marine ecosystems. They are the primary food of the great whales and are consumed in vast numbers by seals, penguins, other seabirds and fish. There is a large commercial fishery for krill in the Southern Ocean. In the book Nicol describes the many curious attributes of Antarctic krill that make krill such a fiendishly difficult species to study and understand. It lives under the sea ice for much of the year. It grows rapidly when food is abundant but shrinks when food is scarce. It has a massive genome – 26 times the size of the human genome. It forms the largest aggregations of animal life on the planet. The krill population suffers a massive level of predation each year – before commercial exploitation the great whales annually consumed 150 million tonnes. Yet there are many krill mysteries still to be resolved. The book explains the difficulties of studying krill at sea and in the laboratory, examines how the fishing industry has struggled to make a commercial product from such an enigmatic source material and how the elusive biology of krill has made managing the fishery a nightmarish task. The future of krill is uncertain with its habitat changing rapidly but the natural resilience of this species may allow it to survive against the odds.