Winter Trip. The Sequel. Part Two.

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!

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

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.

emperor penguin eggs

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.

emperor penguin

Poor buggers!

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.

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks


emperor penguin chicks

emperor penguin chicks

Favourite photo – “what the hell are you lookin at?”

emperor penguin chicks

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!

halley base

Pretty cool eh?

More to come soon, ice, ropes and even a few more penguins!


Penguins. Thousands of em!

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.

emperor penguinsA line coming out from the main group to investigate the strange creatures coming down the cliffs…


emperor penguinsthey were keen to greet us but this one seemed to want to say hello to my backpack, staring at it for ages…

emperor penguinsthere’s always an adventurous one that will hurry ahead to see what’s going on….


emperor penguinsbefore the rest waddle over…


emperor penguinsthen they’ll loudly say hello and show off a bit….


emperor penguinssome have a look and then go for a walk….


emperor penguinssome will just stare intently at you until they get bored or you slowly back off and then move away


emperor penguinsthen they look all surprised as you stand up


emperor penguins

emperor penguins

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.


emperor penguinsThey come out of the guano covered ice to the fresher snow and roll around, rubbing themselves on the ice or each other.


emperor penguinsThis one seemed to be burying his head in the snow….


emperor penguinsbefore it became obvious he was busy eating it.


emperor penguinsThe main group is made up of many thousands of penguins…


emperor penguinsevery now and again there will be a little bit of friction between birds but on the whole they seem to really un-territorial and friendly with each other.


emperor penguinsHidden under the belly flap of the birds in the centre are the chicks keeping out of the winter cold…


emperor penguinsI had to keep an eye out for the tell-tale sign of one bending down to tend to the baby…


emperor penguinsand then you can see the chick poking its head out…


emperor penguins

emperor penguins

emperor penguinsit will then tweet loudly for food…


emperor penguinsor just say hello to its friend…


emperor penguinsor even just have a good stretch and a look around…


emperor penguins

emperor penguinsif 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.

emperor penguinsIf the chick is unlucky it might just get a quick preening from its parent, something they don’t seem to happy about!



emperor penguins

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!