7. Penguins and More Penguins

Leaving Paulet Island to the penguins, Clipper Adventurer retraced our route through Iceberg Alley during the night. The next morning, we early risers enjoyed a pod of Orcas leaping and spouting for several minutes in front of the ship’s bow. And as quickly as they arrived, they were gone. What fun! As I watched them cavort, I thought of the same scene I enjoyed from my sailing days with dolphins playfully swimming and leaping near the bow of our sailboat. Two or three usually surfaced right next to the cockpit of our 25-foot boat, scaring me out of my peaceful thoughts with their loud exhalations. The powerful bow wave in front of Clipper Adventurer attracted more Orcas than our little sailboat had done.

Livingston Island Whale Bones

We returned to the South Shetland Islands on our seventh day and Hannah Point on Livingstone Island, where we visited another Chinstrap Penguin colony. A stream of busy penguins trekked to and from the sea, weaving their way through the thousands of nests, risking the displeasure of the occupant of any nest if they got too close. The snow had melted, so many penguin parents were brooding their one or two eggs. I sat and watched a small group from a distance.

Luckily for me, I got to witness a nearby penguin walk up to a nesting partner. They both stood chest to chest, twining and weaving their necks in recognition, braying a greeting—perhaps passing on news. Then, they switched places. The off-duty penguin stretched, stepped to the side of the nest, and began to preen, important for proper buoyancy. The other penguin positioned her feet on either side of the nest, and then poked and prodded the eggs to turn them. She waggled her brood patch, the warm, featherless skin on her lower belly, and place it over the egg and settled down. She seemed to heave a sigh, ready for some rest after a morning at sea. Well, maybe it was my imagination that she sighed, but I would have if I had been in her place. What a gift to watch the changing of the breeder birds!

These penguins, like others, primarily survive on krill, the small shrimp-like crustaceans that live under ice shelves.

About ten years after my trip to Antarctica, the area’s krill population has become threatened by a developing krill fishery (aquaculture) in the southern oceans of South America, as well as by overfishing and climate change. Recently discovered information that the pink krill oil might be a good antioxidant for aging bodies could be another nail in the coffin of this essential food source. If these human-influenced detriments continue to deplete the krill population, most of the creatures that live around the Antarctic Continent will be devastated.

 

Whaling Days & a Spa

Deception Island is actually the water-filled top of an active volcano that last erupted in 1967 and 1969, destroying two scientific stations inside the crater, but no lives lost. We steamed around the hilly face of the circular island that protected its watery center. When we came to a small gap, the captain carefully navigated the ship through Neptune’s Bellows, the entry channel just under 800 feet wide and framed by tall hills. One of the world’s greatest and safest natural harbors opened before us. Thousand-foot-high cliffs surrounded the seven-mile-wide harbor within the volcano island’s caldera. Heavy clouds obscured the top of the cliffs and heaps of old snow lingered in the shadows on the shore, giving the island a mysterious aura.

Deception Island, whale oil storage tanks

Whaler’s Bay is tucked away in one of the many indentations on the inside of the caldera. On a flatter section of beach, whalers had built their whale-blubber processing station. Rusted remains of the crumbling metal rendering tanks from the nineteenth and twentieth century still stood, along with an old aircraft hangar constructed in more recent times for scientific studies. The commercial tanks felt incongruous after seeing so many places without man-made structures. No penguins wandered around as they had in other places, which surprised me. One of the guides explained that the fishing is better on the other side of the ridge where we passed the busy penguin colony at Baily Head on the eastern most extremity of the island before entering the harbor.

Antarctic Spa

Close to the whaling station, hot water fed by underground volcanic activity seeped into nearby Pendulum Cove. I don’t know how many of the whalers took advantage of that Antarctic spa, but I eagerly joined the exotic adventurers on our trip, ready for another “first” event. Willing to try anything, a handful of us wore our swimsuits under warmer garb, and climbed into the Zodiacs for our shore journey. As we had been instructed, we each dug out a shallow depression in the ankle deep water between the dry rocky beach and the rippling wavelets. I looked around at the others hard at work pulling rocks aside in their swimsuits, here in Antarctic, and thought, Is this absurd, or what?

I turned back to my task. Steam rose from the gravel, hinting at warmth, so I stripped off my coverings and plopped my exposed body into three inches of tepid seawater. Sitting in the warm pool, my legs and backside were warmish, but the rest of me rapidly cooled in the 41°F air. I thought, OK, what now?

Meanwhile, the rest of the curious tourists had come ashore to gape at our amazing display. Two hearty Brits even swam in the cooler water beyond the band of heated pools, but not me. As soon as Sally photographed my ridiculous predicament, I jumped up and raced for a towel.

 

Penguin Life

Over lunch we chatted with one of our nature staff about shore trips, and penguins, of course. We all enjoyed the shore excursions, the opportunity to closely examine such a unique environment, and get some exercise while breathing some of the purest air on earth. I liked the crunchy grinding sound that echoed in the hollow chambers of the Zodiac when we landed for day excursions. It reminded me of the many times I’d run ashore from our sailboat in Mexico, yet, here I was in Antarctica!

Though the staff chose landing sites carefully so our activity would not disturb the penguins, seals, and other wildlife, this did not stop the penguins from marching through our midst. We were allowed to wait to see if they might be curious about us; since we all had seen pictures of people and penguin interactions. Each of us hoped for our own personal encounter, but few people had one. Personally, I felt the penguins found me as interesting as a rock.

The penguin colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula consist primarily of Adélies, gentoos, and chinstraps. All have the characteristic white front and black back, and for good reason. From below, a predator has difficulty seeing a white belly against the sky.

The mature male penguins are the first to return to the nesting grounds, even before the snow melts. Each male knows where his own pile of special stones is located. Soon after, the female arrives and together, they wait. Frequent spontaneous calls insure that their neighbors understand who owns that spot. When a partner returns from dinner in the sea, they renew their bond with snaking necks and loud, barking greetings shouted into the air.

Loading the Raft

The ample flesh under the belly of each parent is important for incubation because the naked brood pouch in the middle of the fold is rich in blood vessels, as with other birds. For example, when a mother penguin returns to the nest, she straddles the egg and adjusts her baggy lower regions around the orb so her brood pouch is properly positioned over the eggs for maximum warmth. When it’s the father’s turn, he does the same with his brood pouch. However, a penguin cannot preen while incubating. Preening must be carefully done for warmth and buoyancy in the icy water, so when the mother, or father, leaves the egg-sitting duty, she or he first takes time to revive the oil on their feathers.

Julio often reminded us to give the nesting penguins a wide berth because we could expose the nest to predation. Plus, if we got too close, the defensive parent could give us a good whack. As flightless birds, penguins, like the steamer ducks, use their wings as weapons. One of the scientists who spent time in a penguin colony, banding chicks, verified how painful a good crack to the shin can be.

I enjoyed just watching the penguins go about their business. They marched up and down hills, stole the walnut-sized rocks from other nests, or greeted each other with snaking head bobs. Sometimes they called out with their hoarse, donkey-like braying. Other times, further south, the penguins patiently waited for the snow to melt, the egg to be laid, or the chick to hatch. We encountered other birds as well. Large Brown Skuas and white, dove-like Snowy Sheathbills watched us closely for scavenging opportunities should we get too close to a penguin’s nest and cause a parent to leave a chick or egg unattended.

Our visit in December was too early for the most frantic portion of penguin parenting when the ravenous chicks exhaust the parents with their incessant demands. We only saw recent hatches in a few places, but photographs during the lectures aboard ship showed the chicks almost the size of their parents, covered with fine down, and with gaping, begging mouths. It’s no wonder the parents leave altogether when the chicks have finished their molt in their preparation to depart. By that time, the frazzled moms and dads need to feed themselves after raising their chicks to self-sufficiency.

The adult penguins also need to molt and replace their feathers annually. After completing their parenting duties, exhausted parents head north to other feeding grounds. They find a good place to feed and regain their weight, and prepare for their molt. Then they hitch a ride on a northbound iceberg, one of the smaller ones that has melted into an odd shape with a low side so the penguins can easily hop onto their chariot. Penguins without feathers are not buoyant and cannot go into the water until they are fully insulated again, so an iceberg offers safety and a relaxing boost to their journey. It takes about a month for all the new feathers to grow in again, displacing the old ones. This is called a “catastrophic molt” in contrast to most birds that molt a few feathers at a time.

When penguins are not nesting, they range widely in the Southern Hemisphere. In the southern spring after roaming the seas, some species, including the rockhoppers and Adélies, return to the Falklands or the Antarctic shores to set up house again. No penguins live north of the equator with the exception of a tiny population of endemic Galapagos penguins. The two penguins I saw when visiting the Galapagos looked so lonesome compared to these huge Antarctic colonies. Only five-and-a-half pounds, the Galapagos Penguins survive in that tropical environment because the waters around the islands are so cold.

 

Crabeater Seals & Magical Silence

During the night, our ship steamed about 145 miles south and west from Deception Island, and south to the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula to visit two spectacular bays, Neko and Paradise Harbors. Located closer to the South Pole, the ship had to shoulder aside more and larger chunks of floating ice, and thicker snow covered the shore. The water temperature stayed a constant 32° F, while the air temperature fluctuated in the 40s.

 

Paradise Harbor

On the eighth day of the trip, we enjoyed a different perspective. On a Zodiac tour of Paradise Harbor we could get much closer to some of the wildlife. With only a light breeze and full sun, we basked in the awe-inspiring view of glaciated mountains with ice-covered slopes that plunged into the harbor.

We approached a six-foot-long Crabeater Seal, fat and content, sleeping soundly on a thick sheet of ice floating only a few inches above the surface of the water. The seal raised his head and opened a sleepy eye, surveying our craft and us. Luckily, we did not qualify as interesting, so he flopped his head down again. Crabeater seals never go ashore, and only rest on convenient icebergs. They eat mostly krill, and in turn, young crabeater seals are the primary food for the Leopard Seals. Ultimately, everything depends on the krill.

Several hundred Adélie penguins wandered around the scattered red buildings of an unoccupied Chilean research station as we motored past. The Adélies waited for the snow to melt off their rock nests. Since penguins poop as needed, the snow looks dirty from a distance but it is really pink from the krill the penguins eat. Their numbers were not as great as the penguins at other colonies, and I wondered if the Chileans had someone to protect the Adélies when they occupied the station, as the Argentinians did.

Loading for a Shore Trip

My Zodiac had been pressed into service to accommodate the last of the passengers wanting to go on the popular tour. The unusually loud and raspy motor assaulted my senses while surrounded by such pristine scenery. One friend who had visited the Antarctic Peninsula previously, had told me that she especially loved the utter silence. I longed for that same experience, and finally, asked the boat driver, “Can we have some time without the motor?”

 Far from the ship and the other motoring Zodiacs, the driver obliged. We drifted quietly for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts amidst the magnificence of Paradise Harbor, a serene delight. That deep silence can only be experienced away from wildlife, especially penguin colonies with their cacophony of calls, brays, and general penguin chatter. Even resting seals like the crabeater will grunt, burp, fart, and slap their sloppy skin on the ice as they wiggle to change position while half asleep; a delight to experience in itself, but a distraction from silence.

Further along on our tour, a leopard seal swam around a sculptured iceberg, diving for krill living on the underside. She must have been a younger seal because they eat mostly krill. The adults can be ten-feet long or more, and they eat the smaller seals and their young. We rounded the seal’s berg a couple of times and she swam over to check us out, perhaps for dinner possibilities. Fortunately, we flunked the test.

During one of the staff’s lectures, we saw a filmed sequence in which a leopard seal grabbed a young penguin, and then thrashed it around in the water to remove the skin. I had to turn away from that awful violence. After recovering, I did recognize how efficiently the leopard seal removed the skin of its dinner. The wilderness is not always pretty, after all, but it can be efficient.