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All Black Penguins?

Two years ago on the Antarctic Peninsula we stopped off at a Chilean science base on a wet, muddy afternoon. We stopped purposely searching for an all-white penguin we’d heard about from scientists on King George Island. It took a couple hours, but we found it. Devoid of pigmentation, something like an albino, the penguin was rare though the soldiers stationed at the base for the summer months told us there were three of them scattered around the island. Now comes a report, by National Geographic reporter Andrew Evans, of an all-black penguin. He spotted and photographed the even more unusual King penguin at Fortuna Bay on the subantarctic island of South Georgia. When Nat Geo reached out to Toronto-based ornithologist Dr. Allan Baker for an explanation of the big bird, his professorial response was something along the lines of “Wow. That’s so bizarre I can’t even believe it. Wow.”

South Georgia All-Black

South Georgia All-Black

The all-white bird we spied at the Gonzalez-Videla base was leucistic, meaning without pigment. Where most penguins are black, it was all white. The bird photographed on South Georgia was apparently suffering from an overdose of melanin, turning its feathers all-black, extremely rare in penguins. (Thanks to a pair of friends – Naked Jim and Hollis B. – for the sighting!)

Antartic Peninsula All-White

Antartic Peninsula All-White

White Thunder, Neko Harbour, Antarctica, Day 4

Sitting atop a bared brown rock on top of a thousand-foot hill looking out over a relatively ice-free harbor – Neko, one of the most beautiful along the Peninsula, though even as I write that I am reminded of how often I say this place or that is “the most beautiful along the Peninsula” – I’m struck by two things: How quiet it is and simultaneously how much ambient sound there is in the air if you just sit … quietly … and listen.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica Peninsula

Neko Harbour, Antarctica Peninsula

I have long said that one of my favorite things about Antarctica is that it is truly a place that you can get remote. Take a hundred foot walk from the shoreline virtually anywhere along the Peninsula and you can be assured no one has ever walked there before. Climb a short hill, as I’ve just done, and the predominant sound is the beating of your heart. It is a perfectly still, calm day, sunny, 38 degrees F at nine in the morning. By noon it will be in the mid-forties, now-typical for the Peninsula this time of year.

Across the narrow bay, black rocky mountain peaks jut out of deep snow. The opposing hills would be incredible ski runs if you could hike up them without disappearing down one of the dozens of crevasses marked by grey shadows on the snow. A pair of glacial tongues roll down towards the sea each a mile-wide, built up over a many tens of thousands of years. The two hundred foot tall glacier walls drop straight into the cold black sea, which is dotted by small icebergs and bergy bits calved off them.

I have been to this harbor a dozen times before and each time it looks different. Often the currents in front of the sand-and-rock beach are fast, filled with moving ice, threatening landings. Big calvings off the glacies have been known to create eight-foot waves, washing everything – Zodiacs, penguins, humans – off the beach. The sea is blue black, highlighted by icebergs and the rings of aqua blue that rim them, reflections of the ice below the surface. The sky scudded by high clouds. Thirty miles to the north, towards the Lemaire Channel and Anvers Island, the peak of Mt. Francais – the highest peak along the Peninsula – pokes through the clouds, a rare sight. To the south stretches dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks heading for the Didier Channel … followed by many more dozens of miles of snowcapped peaks.

Each season I carry back from Antarctica too many mental images to possibly download. They’re all up there in my head, jumbled, roaming, floating. Thankfully they are permanently lodged and pop up at the oddest times – driving along Manhattan’s West Side highway, climbing in the Catskills, just falling asleep – which I always like.

But often it’s not the visual memories from here that stick with me most powerfully, which strike me at the oddest times. It’s the aural ones, the sounds of Antarctica.

The plop-plop-plopping of porpoising penguins. The blow of humpbacks, often heard before you see them breaching. The squawk of new mother and father penguins as they attempt to imprint their voices on brand-new chicks. The wind under the wings of a soaring pintado petrel as it sweeps just overhead.

But as I sit on this short hill above Neko Harbour, I’m waiting for my favorite Antarctic sound, which the Native Americans in Alaska called “White Thunder.” It’s the thunderous calving of the glaciers that occurs deep inside them. Loud, rumbling, often frightening. Whenever you hear that sound, you jerk your head around. But often there’s nothing to be seen. It’s the sound of glaciers evolving, breaking-up, but deep inside. The sound is not followed by falling ice, just … silence.

This day I wait and wait for that sound, but … nothing. Just after noon, after nearly four hours surveying the landscape from atop this rock, I walk down the hill with my friend Richard White. Just as we step down off the peak … out of sight of the end of the narrow harbor and its ending glacier for the first time in hours … when CRACK! Something’s broken off. This time though, it’s not White Thunder but more like Black Thunder. Real ice ripping off the glacier, falling into the black sea. Rippling waves and small pieces of ice emanating from the end of the harbor suggest it was a big piece of glacier that has fallen into the sea. Despite the beauty of the moment, it is that sound that will stay with me far longer.

The Lasciviousness of Life, Antarctic-Style, Day 2

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

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

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?

Antarctica, Random Notes

A few days ago China opened its third Antarctic science station, at 12,000 feet above sea level on the continent’s highest icecap. The station – named Kunlun – at Dome Argus is the country’s first inland base. (It has two others, Zhongshan and Great Wall, on King George Island.) While the rest of the world is choking economically and Antarctic science is far down the list of most government’s priorities, China is spending big down south, expanding its presence on the continent.

The base is small, accommodating just twenty people. The government says it will be used for a range of Antarctic research, especially deep glaciers and the mountains underneath them and the effect of extreme cold on human physiology and psychology and medical supplies and equipment.

“It is another great contribution by our country to the human being to unveil the Antarctic mystery,” said Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a telegram.

A telegram?

***

Members of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society accused Japanese whalers of attacking them this weekend with sound guns, water canons, concussion grenades and other weapons in frigid waters near Antarctica, according to Reuters.

Two Sea Shepherd activists in inflatable boats were slightly injured by water canon and metal balls thrown by the whaling crew as they tried to obstruct the launch of harpoons, said Paul Watson, captain of the Sea Shepherd anti-whaling vessel, the “Steve Irwin.” A Japanese government official denied the accusations.

“If our crew can hit them, then they would be better off quitting the research vessel and joining a professional baseball team,” Shigeki Takaya, assistant director of Japan’s Far Seas Fisheries Division, told the Reuters News Agency.

Takaya admitted the whalers used water canons and “beeping warning tones,” but protested that the activists hurl bottles of dye and foul-smelling butyric acid (rotten butter) at whaling vessels. Sea Shepherd has also deployed a helicopter to document the whaling activities.

Whale hunting was banned by a 1986 International Whaling Commission moratorium, which Japan has sought to overturn each year. Japan continues to kill about 900 minke and fin whales per year in what it calls a “scientific whaling program.” Most of the resulting whale meat is sold on the Japanese market.

“What is important is that despite the violence from the whalers, no whales are being killed,” Capt. Watson said. “They can’t get away from us, and if we keep on their tail they can’t kill whales.”

Rotten butter?

***

During my recent seven weeks in Antarctica we saw just one Emperor penguin, afloat on a piece of pancake ice, alone, a beautiful if somewhat sad scene. It’s unusual to see Emperor’s along the Peninsula, since their home is far, far south. Yet I’m still stunned to see them twinned – like polar bears in the North – to endangered species lists:

Yet a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the world’s largest penguins could suffer serious population declines through at least part of their range before the end of the century. The paper, co-authored by five researchers and led by WHOI biologists Stephanie Jenouvrier and Hal Caswell, used mathematical models to predict the effect on penguins from climate change and the resulting loss of sea ice.

“Penguins need sea ice to breed, feed and molt on. The ice also serves as a grazing ground for krill – tiny crustaceans which penguins, along with fish, whales and seals, feed on. The research indicates if climate change continues to melt sea ice at the rates published in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, the median population size of a large emperor penguin colony such as one in Terre Adelie, Antarctica, will likely shrink from its present size of 3,000 to only 400 breeding pairs by the end of the century. There are about 40 emperor penguin colonies that exist in the world.

“Emperor penguins weigh around 66 pounds and can stand about 3.8 feet tall. They can dive to a depth of 1,800 feet and hold their breath for up to 22 minutes – allowing them to get food other birds can’t get.

“The researchers say the probability of a population decline of 95 percent or more is at least 40 percent and perhaps as much as 80 percent. If that many penguins are lost, extinction could occur.

“Over the last 50 years, climate change in Antarctica has been most pronounced in the Antarctic Peninsula, where Terre Adelie is located. In the future, the Ross Sea—where sea ice actually has increased in recent years—may be the last sanctuary for penguins.” Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decided not to list the emperor penguin under the endangered species act.

Holding their breath for 22 minutes?

***

I spent part of the afternoon with Google Earth, er, Google Ocean, the brand new add-on to the Internet phenom. My initial search took me directly south, to Antarctica, where Google underwater research is still limited. I scoured the Peninsula for underwater views, but I guess it’s too early. Go to the Ross Sea, though, and there are some very cool – if dark – glimpses of Antarctic life beneath the sea.

The best early review of the new software comes from my friend Andy Revkin at the New York Times. In his Dot Earth posting yesterday, he worries about the advancement of seeing the world as a high tech video game and quotes Dr. Steven Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale, who is skeptical of the way many are now experiencing the world’s landscapes:

“Like most aspects of the modern telecommunications age, it is a complicated situation. My sense of the data is that there is a strong correlation between environmental awareness, even environmental activism in the most limited sense, and the advent of video/ television/ film depictions of nature and conservation. The down side is that it appears this exposure to nature and conservation via film bears very little correlation with a more complex and deep understanding of the natural world and its protection, or actions relation to personal lifestyle and responsibility. Moreover, a great deal of the increased awareness is abstract and remote – e.g., for tropical forests, charismatic wildlife in distant place, issues like climate change, but correspondingly little awareness, appreciation, or action related to the local and regional environment in one’s place or state of residence.

“The sad reality is that while more abstract, vicarious/representational awareness of nature and its conservation via the video and computer have grown enormously, concurrently, there has been a profound decline in more commonplace, everyday experience and contact with nature and the often deeper and more realistic and lasting appreciation and action that comes from this personal involvement.”

Agreed.

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