The weather has been pretty good for the past week or so – in fact it was unseasonably warm at one point with the temperature soaring up to -8 degrees C. Might not sound too warm but the week before it was in the -50’s. The temps have settled a bit around -30 now and although -30 is cold, having come through much worse over the winter it feels quite nice out, kind of like a brisk spring day! The Sun’s getting higher in the sky too and a few days ago the sunglasses came out for the first time since winter began. Summer’s a coming!
Because of this, and because everyone has been working fairly hard the team have been taking the chance to get off base, three at a time, riding down to the large emperor penguin colony down at Windy Bay. Windy is about fifty kilometres away from base, where the sea would normally be. The journey down is done on skidoo. Because of a recent blow (bit of high wind) the route was fairly smooth with the sastrugi that bounces you all over the place flattened out a bit. The morning we set off though was a foggy one for the first twenty km so, for a large part of the journey we could have been flying. Zero contrast and limited visibility meant that you couldn’t see the ground you were riding on and could just about see the lights on the doo in front. No sky, no ground and no horizon with no features anywhere, it was a pretty weird journey. If a canyon opened up in the ice you wouldn’t have had a clue, in fact you could have ridden into one and you’d only know by the change in the engine sound! (till you landed)
Anyway, despite that it was fairly straight forward trip, the route down to Windy is a fairly well-travelled one, passing a few weather stations and the old Halley 5 site. A couple of hours and we reached the old caboose, sitting about a kilometre from the edge of the ice shelf. As we took off our helmets and turned off the doo engines we could already hear the sound of the colony in the distance down below. The combined sound of thousands of penguins was oddly like someone trying to start a car on a cold morning, though as you got closer it became more distinct and you could even make out the odd high-pitched tweet of the chicks. Harnessed up we walked down to the edge and the abseiled off the cliff and down to the sea ice about a hundred feet below. Nice and easy to get down, zipping down the rope, but an absolute nightmare climbing back up, I’m still aching now! Umpteen layers of clothing, heavily insulated boots, a fully laden climbing harness and a full rucksack all make for an interesting ascent. Made me feel old anyway!
That said, the climb back up could have been many times worse and it would have still been worth it. A visit to see the emperors is something that only a tiny fraction of people will ever get to do, to see them in winter when the chicks are still small and newly hatched is something even fewer will ever have the opportunity to witness.
Emperors are the largest of all the penguin species and whilst they are regal (as the name suggests) in comparison to the smaller and more flighty penguins they are still really friendly and full of character. They are one of the few animals left on the planet not to have developed a fear of humans and their curiosity means they’ll happily come over and investigate anything that interests them. As we were abseiling down the ice shelf a line began to form, coming out from the main huddle, as more and more interested penguins noticed us. By the time I had touched down a small group had waddled over to check us out. Every now and again a braver soul would venture further forward and then the rest would follow, edging closer. We are there as observers only, trying not to interfere and keeping a good distance away from the birds. They, however have their own ideas about that. The best position to be in is knelt down – that way you don’t spook or startle any of them, making slow movements and backing off if they get too close. As it happens though, the penguins will often come closer to you faster than you can get away. Apparently the only thing that will really frighten them off is if you lie down on the ice – giving them the impression of something seal-like, with leopard seals their only real predator on land. We obviously did’nt do that of course!
Stand up slowly and they’ll back off a bit and then you can walk slowly off. The main huddle of penguins is made up of penguins keeping their chicks warm, balancing them on their feet and enveloping them under their belly in a brood pouch, warm due to fat and incredibly dense feathers. At this stage the chicks would only last seconds if they lost the protection of their parent and would quickly freeze. As they get older they will develop dense, downy feathers and will be able to run round in groups. The emperor penguins life is one of impressive endurance and hardship. The female will lay one egg early in winter and then, depleted of her energy reserves set off back across the expanse of the increasing sea ice to fish. The male will take the egg from her and balance it on his feet, covering it with his belly. This is quite a tricky manoeuvre and many eggs are lost, if the egg rolls and touches the ice or spends too much time in the frigid air the egg will quickly die. The male will then spend the next two months in the harshest of conditions with -6oC temps and 100knt winds, unable to feed and losing up to half his bodyweight, taking care of the egg. The females will then come back, after walking hundreds of miles across the ice, bringing back fresh food for the newly hatched chicks. The male will then make the journey out to sea to feed before coming back and swapping again. When the young are a little bit older and have a protective layer of feathers they will run round together in small gangs of delinquents or huddle together when the weather is bad – leaving both parents free to head off to feed before coming back with squid, krill and fish for their hungry and fast growing offspring.
The outer groups of penguins are either juveniles or individuals that have either not mated or lost their chicks or eggs and with nothing better to do will investigate anything that takes their interest. A little out of curiosity or maybe, it seems, to protect the main group with their young, they follow you around keeping themselves between you and the main huddle, getting closer and closer.
if it’s lucky it will get a meal from its parent. Emperors are quite mammalian in some respects, unique amongst birds the males will feed their young a milky substance high in fat and protein if the female has not returned with food yet. They are also quite marsupial-like, in the way the keep the chick and egg in a pouch.
Cute as they are now, they get cuter. Hopefully I’ll get to go back down in a few months and see them all looking like small bags of fur, being boisterous, noisy and as inquisitive as the older birds.
Aww, penguins. you’ve got to love em. Cute as cute can be. These birds though are amongst the most hardcore animals on the planet. Everything they do is a real fight, right from the star of their lives. Emperor eggs are really thick and hatching can take up to three days, exhausting the poor chick. Then, for the adults, the longs months without food, the cold and wind, the staggering distances walked by an animal not really designed for walking. They are also at risk of the unpredictable nature of the climate down here, last year, for example, the sea ice broke out early wiping out a large percentage of that years chicks – any who were not fortunate enough to have moulted and grown their ocean-going plumage were lost.
They really are incredibly tough, and, as I mentioned quite regal – with their distinctive plumage. But, despite that, at times it felt like being surrounded by curious children. They really are amazing animals. I’m chuffed to have been able to go, another one of those days that is worth the whole time me being down here!