The second part of my recent excursion continues with a new partner on the trip – John, the Base Commander, with Doc staying home to keep an eye on his patient.
With reasonable weather (-30C and 5 knt wind) we decided to pay a visit to Windy Bay, home of the enormous Emperor colony – which, by now, we hoped should have lots of penguin toddlers running round.
As I mentioned previously this post contains pictures that are unashamedly right off the cuteness scale. What can you do though – they’re baby penguins!
The chicks are now much bigger than they were when last I visited, and a great deal more mobile too. When I was last here all the young birds were safely tucked up under their parents and would have struggled to survive if fully exposed to the elements. Now they are roaming free across the ice, playing with their mates or trying alternately either to get away from or get back to either of their parents.
The chicks, depending on how old or brave they are can be seen staying quite close to their mum or dad, gathering in small crèches near to their parents or simply buggering off to explore.
The more adventurous groups were really wandering off out of it. Some of the chicks may well be left all on their own as both parents go out to fish at once – staggered rather than together but still bringing in more food for their increasingly hungry offspring. This means that whilst some of the chicks seem happy as Larry to wander round exploring till the folks get back, others, often the younger and smaller ones, seem to spend most of their time trying to find a parent. These young chicks will walk around introducing themselves to almost every adult they meet. They will chirp loudly for food or in a lot of cases just make a dive under the feet.
This is quite tiring when you only have little legs so you also see quite a lot who seem to have decided that the best thing to do is just to stay where you are and have a kip.
Apart from the quite high chance of dying of exposure the chicks are pretty safe from predation at this time of year. They do, however need to watch out for the occasional abduction. Parents of chicks that did not survive will often try to adopt other youngsters that cross their paths. Hopefully this has positive outcomes with abandoned or lost chicks surviving due to the help of an adoptive parent. This behaviour can also end up causing fights though- one of the very few even slightly aggressive displays I’ve seen is below. The penguin on the right has grabbed the chick and is trying to stop it from running away. The penguin on the left is apparently the parent and is keen to get its young un back home.
A bit of a squabble ensues (yeah, squabble is about as violent as it gets – though they both seemed very determined) before lefty penguin wins out and the chick scampers back under its belly flap. The loser then shrugged his or her shoulders and wandered off – perhaps to find another chick.
Whilst the parents obviously protect, search for and find (an impressive feat in itself) their own young, the whole colony does seem to have quite a community vibe going on with large nurseries being watched over by a few adults, chicks swapping between different adults and a general looking out for each other kind of attitude (I know I’m anthropomorphising a little bit here but hey – I’m a Sparky not a Zoologist so I’m allowed to). This isn’t really surprising I suppose for a creature that so often is dependent on the warmth and support of its neighbour in order to survive.
That’s not to say that it’s a little anarcho- socialist paradise. Danger of death is still ever-present. Testament to the harshness of the environment are the large areas of the colony that are littered with perfectly preserved frozen corpses. I’ll spare you the photos of those. There are lots and lots of eggs everywhere too.
The eggs are really quite big, between the size of an avocado and a mango with what feels like a very thick shell.
With no predators or scavengers able to really access this colony until later on in the year when seals or sea birds such as Skuas make it back and with no decomposition due to the low temperatures quite often in some places there can be a lot of dead chicks and eggs. The huddles tend to move around and the areas they leave can be a bit like graveyards. Nature is harsh and no more so than down here, even without anything trying to bite you.
Aside from the risk of either freezing or starving to death the sea ice and the ice shelf themselves can be a bit of a nightmare for the colony. Last year the sea ice broke out early leaving most, if not all of the chicks to die without their adult coats or sea ice to stand on. A few were left clinging to accessible areas of the shelf but not many. I did get a few pictures of those that were left last year when I arrived on the ship.
Then you see things like this, the “over-hang of Damocles”. Perched above a large area of oblivious birds.
You can’t be sad for too long about such things though – not sure who said it, and I’m paraphrasing here, but “you can’t stay angry or sad when looking at a penguin” Can’t really argue with that can you? So here’s a lot of photos of some chicks looking cute and staring at me funny. If they weren’t so chilled out they could probably take over the internet from cats I reckon.
Favourite photo – “what the hell are you lookin at?”
Again, I’m anthropomorphising but that little fella above wandering past John is definitely making aeroplane noises right?
Once more I’m left feeling lucky to see such things!
The climb back up the cliffs was, once again, emotional! Jumaring up a rope padded up with insulating down clothing (a number of layers) and huge gloves, sweating despite having freezing hands and fingers – it really takes it out of you. Still it felt quite a bit easier this time, regardless though, it’s always worth the pain getting back up to get down in the first place.
Windy Bay, being an area of scientific interest has its own caboose stationed about a kilometre away from the edge of the shelf. For those of you that don’t know a caboose down here (as opposed to a train caboose) is kind of a little shack or shipping container built on legs. They are dotted around the site at Halley, housing various science experiments away from the base and they can also be dragged further afield, mounted on a sledge, to provide a more permanent shelter than a tent. They can be dragged down to the sea ice at relief to provide a refuge or left at places of interest like Windy.
So we were saved the chore of erecting the tent for another night, instead electing to stay where we were and avail ourselves of the relative luxury of the caboose. The windy caboose is basically a container with two windows, some bunks and a kerosene fuelled burner. We had a pleasant evening playing cards, drinking tea and swapping stories. I was woken in the middle of the night drenched in sweat though – the caboose can get up to a balmy 20 odd degrees C with the heat on and the only kit we had such as sleeping bags were rated to -50. That’s a big old difference! Still, soak up the heat while you can.
Last photo of this post (lots more to come) of the mornings view looking back up towards base. Windy Bay is a around 40 kilometres away and under normal circumstances the base would be impossible to see – it would be below the curvature of the Earth. But with a bit of atmospheric magic you can see the base appear as a mirage on the horizon!
Pretty cool eh?
More to come soon, ice, ropes and even a few more penguins!