OK, here’s what you’ve been waiting for … PENGUINS.
One of the absolute highlights of my prior trip to Antarctica was the day we spent in a helicopter flying along the edge of the ice and making occasional stops to see places and things of interest. The highlight of that highlight was a magical visit to a colony of Emperor penguins many miles from McMurdo, at the edge of the melting sea ice.
I certainly wanted to retrace those steps to see what would be different this time of year, at the end of the austral summer rather than the end of winter. So Mike and I suited up in our ECW gear and walked down to McMurdo’s helicopter terminal. We met our pilot Barry, did a brief safety check, donned our flight helmets, and lifted off. Our first stop was Cape Royds, a wind-whipped promontory at the extreme western point of Ross Island, more than 20 miles (36 km) from McMurdo Station.
Cape Royds sits at the foot of Mt Erebus. It’s the site of a hut built in 1907 for Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition, as well as the home of a colony of Adélie penguins. The colony has approximately 2,100 nests, down from more than 4,000 because of a large iceberg that grounded nearby about ten years ago. The iceberg caused McMurdo Sound to ice over completely for several seasons, creating too long a walk to open water and causing many of the penguins to abandon the colony to nest elsewhere.
Although conditions were mild at McMurdo, the winds intensified as we flew toward the cape. By the time we arrived, the wind was literally howling. We were whipped fiercely throughout our visit by snow blowing down the slopes of Erebus. You can get a sense of the environment from the photo (above) of our helicopter, taken just after we landed and were walking away toward the Adélie colony.
When the wind temporarily eased a bit, I took the photo below to give you a sense of the rocky terrain of Cape Royds. The colony was about a kilometer from our landing site, across these rocky hills.
One of my scientist friends told me that the colonies in the Ross Sea area contain more than 5 million Adélies. Large colonies, such as Ross Island before the iceberg, support as many as a half million penguins.
As we crossed the first rise, we could see the edge of Cape Royds and the open sea of McMurdo Sound. In the far distance beyond the water was the Antarctic mainland and its vast Wilson Piedmont Glacier.
Adélies nest in the rocky mounds near the water. As we approached, our eyes adjusted to the black-and-white environment, and we began to make out the forms of penguins among the rocks. (Look near the bottom left of the photo below.)
I walked briskly because I was anxious to see chicks. I was too early in the season the last time to see juveniles, and of course we did not intrude close enough to see eggs in the stone nests that Adélies build.
Adélies breed from October to January. Eggs incubate for just over 30 days, and chicks remain in the nest for about 20 days before moving on to crèches (group nurseries). I knew from my prior visit that the largest concentration of Adélies at the site would be on the hill pictured below.
Still photos don’t do justice to the dynamism and personality of Adélies. The colonies are loud, raucus, bustling environments with penguins scurrying around, pushing, playing, sliding, arguing, and calling. I stood for an extended period in the high winds, thigh-deep in snow, watching the interactions within and among social groups on the hill.
I laughed out loud a couple times, including when one of the young Adélies waddled up to a mate from behind and knocked him down with a coldcock to the back of the head. Good-natured rough-housing ensued. If you look closely at the photos you can see a few juveniles still in their dark gray down feathers.
Adélies are highly social and curious. The diaries of the early explorers are filled with humorous stories of the penguins insisting on inspecting the new arrivals, chattering among themselves as they went, and getting into a variety of trouble, including suicidal approaches on tethered sled dogs.
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, a member of one of Robert Falcon Scott’s expeditions, noted, “They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance.”
I crouched low in the snow, to be as unobtrusive as possible. I ended up, though, catching the eye of the penguin at the bottom of the photo above. He and a buddy decided to come over to see what I was up.
As they approached, I made a mental note to congratulate the Happy Feet folks later for the marvelous way in which they simulated the movements, attitude, and personality of Adélies. Neither of my new friends had the haircut or sang Sinatra, but either one of them could easily have been Robin Williams.
Stay tuned. I’ll post more penguin pictures after I spend a bit of time with my curious new friends.