Spied our first penguin chicks of the season today, on Petermann Island … fitting since it had been the home of both early explorers (Frenchman Charcot and his boat the Porquoi Pas camped here for two seasons one hundred years ago) and more recently researchers (the penguin counters from the Washington, D.C.-based Oceanites lived here in tents for five seasons, until 2008). The island is unique for the combination of breeding Gentoos and Adelies and blue-eyed shags, all living together, nest-to-nest, in a bird-world equivalent of very non-segregated housing.
The Adelies have been fleeing Petermann by more than ten percent a year and their numbers are down this year too, to just a few more than three hundred pairs … from five hundred a few seasons back. The Oceanites researchers predict they’ll all be gone from the island in another ten years. Why? Adelies love cold weather, and it simply isn’t staying cold enough, especially during the summer months. They love pack ice, and the sea isn’t staying frozen as long anymore. Meanwhile, the place is amuck with a booming population of Gentoos, a more temperate-loving bird, who are taking over the abandoned Adelies’ rock nests and booming in numbers.
Each season I ask my penguin-researching friends where they think the Adelies are off too and each season get a similar response: We’re not sure. It would be nice to think they’ve gotten the message that temperatures along the Peninsula are warming, are packing their bags and moving further south, where it’s colder. But that may be giving penguins too much credit. Some (many?) may simply be leaving here and not making it further south. It’s difficult to know because south of Petermann there are few scientists, very little regular monitoring. No one expects penguins to disappear from Antarctica — neither Adelie, Gentoo or Chinstrap, Emperor or King — but they are definitely on the move.
The chicks are about the size of a coffee cup, just two of them in the same nest. In the next week, ten days, the island will be covered with little squawkers. As I try to get a glance at the babies, I ask one of the researchers exactly how many penguins are on the continent. Same reply, No one really knows. Much of Antarctica is impossible to visit, so counting doesn’t take place. Aerial photographs don’t do the job. Estimates are there are about two-and-a-half-million Adelies alone; so let’s say there are somewhere upwards of five million of them scattered around.
A flying Gentoo
The first penguin? It was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Great Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds and was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. When later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. Penguin itself has muddy origins; it originally seemed to mean ‘fat one‘ in Spanish/Portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’ (white head), from the Latin ‘pinguis’ (fat) or from a corruption of ‘pin-wing’ (pinioned wings).
I spent most of the day on the island’s highpoint, hiking up through a slot in the granite hills to look south over a dark sea made more ominous by gathering storm clouds. Though it was cold, twenty-degrees with a gusting wind, and the skies grey I stood for several hours watching the ice move around the near sea, like a giant game of dominoes, the winds and currents faced off against each other, with no winner in sight.
My first footsteps on Terra Antarctic this season were taken on Barrientos, one of the tiny Aitcho islands, part of the South Shetlands, still one hundred miles off the continent. (It was just twenty miles from here, on King George Island, that we dropped – and then picked up – our kayaks two years ago.) Those first steps each austral summer are always fantastic, memorable, a reminder of why I keep coming back year after year. The sky this morning is grey-green, the sun striving hard to burn through; the smell of the penguin colonies as powerful as ever. A recent snowstorm had buried many of the penguin nests, which have now been mostly unburied by their inhabitants. While the South Shetlands are not the most prolific wildlife spots in Antarctica, within a ten-minute walk I see three species of penguin (Gentoo, Chinstrap and a stand-alone, way-out-of-his-way King) and three different kinds of seal (Weddell, Elephant and Leopard).
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
The tall King – visible from the shore standing on the crest of a small hill, silhouetted – stands out distinctly because he is literally five times the size of the other birds. What he is doing here is a mystery; at some point he obviously made a wrong turn somewhere because his home is most likely South Georgia, 660 miles to the east. Apparently he’s been here for a couple seasons, so though he looks out of place, towering above the other penguins, he’s obviously decided to stay put. There are rumors he may have tried to breed while here, though unsuccessfully.
The afternoon’s walk is at one of my favorite stops, Deception Island. Landing on the beach at Bailey Head, with its steep and fast fall-off, is always a challenge. The reward? Somewhere between 120,000-160,000 breeding Chinstraps (even the penguin experts among us have a hard time counting them all). Walk off the black sand beach, beneath a heavily snow-capped volcano, and a wide valley opens up exposing a mile-long line of marching penguins, three, four, five abreast, making their way back and forth from the sea and up a gently-sloping, five-hundred-foot tall hill. Those coming from the cold Southern Ocean, stomachs swollen from several hours of fishing, many can barely stand or waddle. Those heading the other direction, towards the sea, are easily identifiable by their filthy stomachs, streaked in mud and guano from a long day spent nurturing a pair of eggs (chicks are coming within the next couple weeks).
From a seat on a chunk of ice atop the hill I watch the comings and goings for an hour. Below, on either side of the steep hill, plays out the whole lasciviousness of life: Flirtation. Sex. Birth. Loving. Feuding. Friendship. Feeding. Youth. Middle age. Impairment. Death.
What surprises most on their first visit to a colony – after they get used to the guano-tinged smell that will linger in their nose hairs for a couple weeks, even after they’ve left Antarctica – is the reality that everything in a penguin’s life takes place in this one place. Especially real is the dying. Skeletal remains in every form litter the black sand, from seashore to the top of the hill. Black-and-white wings attached to a Skua-cleaned skeleton; a solitary, perfectly intact foot; blood-filled bodies, just beginning to be pecked by scavengers; long, thin vertebrae. Elegiac, each is both art and a reminder that life often ends not far from where it began.
By eight p.m. a warmish breeze has blown up, the sun come … and gone, now hidden by clouds. In this season of course, it never gets completely dark – sunrise tomorrow is expected at 02:33.
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Someone emailed a very good question the other day, regarding my own carbon footprint, especially when traveling to such remote places as Antarctica. It’s both a legitimate question and one we should all ponder.
I’ve tried to work out my own carbon footprint online a couple times in the past, but as soon as I start to respond to Question 2 – “How often do you fly?” – the computer starts blinking red and smoking. Flying is a sizable contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere; I do it constantly and around the world. My only rationale is that by bringing back-stories from the places I fly to, and sharing them — especially with classrooms – I’m a bit absolved, though not completely. An option would be to stay home; I guess … one I will continue to ponder.
I traveled a couple years ago in the high Arctic with Richard Branson, who – as an airline company owner – knows a few things about the environmental impact of flying. His company, he explained, was experimenting with less-polluting fuels. As for his own personal carbon footprint, when it came to all the flying he does he rationalized … as all of us frequent fliers do. He was off the next month, for example, to South Africa, to meet with Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and another nine peacemakers. “We could all walk there, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think we’d get much accomplished. It doesn’t mean we don’t think about, or realize, the environmental impact of our actions.”
I’m out of the loop news-wise; has anyone published a story about the carbon contributions of the thousands who have gathered for eleven days in Copenhagen to debate the future of climate change?