Parental Proximity (More Penguins)

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This is one of my favorite photos from our recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. Surprisingly, it was taken just feet from one of the only inhabited structures we saw on the continent, at Port Lockroy on Goudier Island (part of the Palmer Archipelago). It’s a British research base, or it used to be- now it’s mostly a museum and a place to send postcards, from the most southern post office in the world! The little museum is in one of the original buildings, along with the little gift shop and mailbox, and a more recent addition houses the few people who summer at the base and run the island’s buildings and projects, which take up half of the island. The other half is reserved for the gentoo penguins, who have arrived since the base was originally constructed in 1944 and are slowly and surely overwhelming the area ostensibly overrun by humans.

Pink penguin guano, filled with the exoskeletons of unfortunate krill, coated almost every surface (penguins are projectile poopers- the excrement goes up a lot higher than you might expect from flightless birds). The sides of the path from our landing site to the buildings were barely five feet away from gentoo nests, which seemed to bother the humans a lot more than it bothered the penguins. It was overwhelming- by that point in our trip, we’d seen a lot of penguins. But… penguins! Meanwhile, this fascinating little museum filled with half-century old expedition rations, notebooks, maps, radios, record players, and creepy audio reconstructions waited just beyond the adorable-birdie gauntlet. And we had something like forty minutes to experience all of it.

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p.s. here is the main museum/gift shop building. I like that the color scheme matches the gentoo penguins so well.

I blame Dad for my lack of photos of the island- he left me to write postcards to all of our various family members (anyone whose address I had in my phone). But I can’t really actually muster up any righteousness about it. He had so much fun checking out all the weird leftovers from the age of brutally beardy science-men of the Antarctic… and while my freezing fingers wrote too slowly for me to get back outside for long, our delay kept us in the building just long enough to catch the penguin parent above returning from its foraging trip. From the rocky path, we watched the parents greet one another with bows and beak touches before orchestrating their careful swap in position, moving simultaneously so that the two chicks in the nest would be unprotected and uncovered for as few seconds as possible. Chicks safely covered once more, the relieved parent headed for the water and the returned parent settled on the pile of rocks and guano and roly-poly babies. As the rest of our group headed to the zodiaks and the ship, we lingered for a gross but awesome feeding (the parent barfs up some portion of whatever he or she has consumed while out foraging straight into the mouths of the hungry young) and finally, this picture-perfect family photo.

Leaning on my dad on our way back to the Orion, I did tease him about making me write all of our postcards… but he reminded me of all the times that, like that penguin dad (or mom), he’d (not as graphically) brought home food for me and my siblings. He never barfed up food for his offspring, but he is pretty great as a human father.

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Blue-Eyed Babies

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The blue-eyed shag aren’t graceful, like albatrosses, or as cute as penguins. But these birds (Phalacrocorax atriceps) are excellent at catching fish, and as attentive parents as a baby cormorant could hope for. One of the coolest things about the nesting colonies we visited on the Antarctic Peninsula was that the birds were at all different stages of breeding: some were recently arrived, constructing nests from seaweed, grass, mud, poop, and feathers; some sat on small clusters of eggs; some guarded their new-hatched fuzzy babies from skuas; some watched as their gigantic young flapped their ungainly wings, preparing for the day they’d take to the skies.

In colonies, the shags aren’t as aggressive as the penguins- we watched the nearby gentoos pull tail feathers, smack each other with wings, steal rocks, and scream full-throated into each others’ faces- but seemed more widely-spaced, and more likely to build a bit apart from one another. The shag in the photo above had claimed the top of that rock and apparently all the space around it, risking predation from the skies but earning a bit of piece and quiet, or as much as a parent could reasonably expect while sitting on two giant squawking babies. As it waited for its partner to return with a belly full of fish (they can dive over a hundred meters deep to catch their prey), this parent contemplated the bustle of the penguin colony and the comparable awkward waddle of the orange-coated humans onshore.

They’ve struck an interesting balance between the aquatic optimization of the penguins and the aerial competency of more typical birds. They take off with difficulty, especially when laden with full bellies, and land in an ungainly jumble of feathers and webbed feet, but beat their wings powerfully through the air once airborne, and dive like black-fletched arrows from sky to sea to catch their prey. From their perches on the rocks, the young shags watch their parents and, presumably, dream of leaving their awkward adolescence for the slightly less awkward, occasionally glorious life of a grown-up. I can relate to that.

They’re Everywhere and They Don’t Eat Crabs

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And those are the two most important things to know about crabeater seals. Well, maybe not the most important. And maybe a bit misleading.

They’re not EVERYWHERE. But there are more crabeater seals on the planet than there are ALL OTHER SEALS. That’s right, just crabeaters might outnumber the entire rest of the pinnipeds. Then again, they might not- the population estimate on Wikipedia gives a total number of 7-75 million crabeater seals in Antarctica (…that’s a lot of uncertainty). Either way, they’re among the most numerous large mammals in the world, topped only by humans. Anyways… Crabeater seals, Lobodon carcinophaga, are thus named not because they “eat crabs,” but because they do in fact have “lobed teeth” and have (clearly) been wildly successful in hunting the most abundant Antarctic food source, krill. Krill are not crabs. More on krill to come.

From the numbers we saw, we would never have guessed how many crabeaters exist in the Antarctic. They tend to spread out, one or two at a time on the pack ice and sea ice, near their food sources and the water in which they transform from graceless meaty grubs on solid ground to graceful… meaty grubs in the water. Of all the majestic things about Antarctica, I’m not sure these were one: their ice floes tended to be considerably poopier than seal-unoccupied floes (that red stuff on the seal’s tail in that photo? Not a reflection), their general behavior when we saw them tended to be either contortionist stretching, fighting, or boneless napping, and they couldn’t compare to the size and grandeur of nearby whales, whose poop we never saw. But on occasion they sure were cute!

One of the major benefits of the National Geographic/Lindblad trip was the presence of amazing photographers and people who appreciated the photographers’ desire to spend forever setting up a shot and then taking ten thousand iterations. Getting a photo like this- seal sitting up, face amiably composed, poop more or less obscured, lovely icy background- took probably half an hour of lurking near this seal. A photographer for The Magazine might have spend days setting this up, and as a result would have gotten a much nicer photo… and a very cold butt. The crew and staff on the Orion were awesome about giving us enough time to play and explore and take obnoxious numbers of seal, whale, penguin, and bird photos (not to mention photos of straight-up ice, water, clouds, mountains, the boat itself, each other…), but still managed to get us all back aboard and moving in good humor and with entirely unfrozen butts. They knew we’d never want to leave… but they also knew we’d never want to miss out on whatever was next.

Perfect Ten

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I’ve mentioned how penguins are pretty special birds, but I couldn’t resist posting again about their incredible adaptations as swimmers. On land they strut and waddle and trip and jump and generally look adorable and a little bit ridiculous… but as soon as their flippers strike the water, they transform.

Here’s a list of the ten coolest penguin adaptations/exaptations that allow them to swim like Olympic champions (or significantly better, sorry Michael Phelps…) in order of crazy awesomeness (aka no particular order):

1. Penguins are fat. Literally, according to NatGeo Wild and a study on Adelie penguins, the different species are all over 1/3 fat when they begin the breeding season. Although they lose much of this fat between feeding trips (King penguins can lose 50% of their body weight in a few weeks), the remainder helps insulate the birds from the extremely cold water.

2. Penguins are not fuzzy. The key to warmth in dry places is trapped air, and it’s the same in the water. But this means that penguin chicks (don’t worry, more photos to come) with their fluffy feathers don’t do so well when the feathers get wet. Meanwhile, adult penguins spread a greasy covering from a gland near the tail over their overlapping and interlocking body feathers that effectively waterproofs the birds’ internal coats of down, very analogous to our expedition’s giant orange coats over many layers of polar fleece. But as the penguins dive, they must feel the cold more and more as the limited air in their feather coat compresses and becomes a less effective insulator, much like human divers in their wetsuits and drysuits (Hi Justin and Erin!). They can’t keep too much air in their feathers or they’ll be too buoyant to dive. What they need is heated undergarments.

3. Penguins are countershaded. While the dark-on-top light-on-bottom coloration makes them look awfully dapper, penguins likely also use this coloration for heat regulation on land and camouflage at sea. Looking up at white bellies or down at black backs is more difficult for predators, allowing penguins to blend in just a little with the sky and darker ocean depths. This may also help them catch their prey.

4. Penguins hold their breath. Emperor penguins can dive for over twenty minutes, rising to the surface with blood oxygen levels so low that other animals would have passed out or experienced tissue damage well before they reached the open air. Not all penguins are so deep-diving- some average dives of thirty seconds or so- but all penguins have increased hemoglobin and myoglobin in their blood and tissues to help store oxygen.

5. In terms of oxygen efficiency, it also doesn’t hurt that penguins can regulate bloodflow to the exposed parts of their bodies (extremities like feet and wingtips, bare patches of skin on the face, etc.) as the water chills those body parts and slows metabolism and oxygen demand.

6. Speaking of blood, a penguin’s veins wrap around their arteries, transferring heat into the arterial blood and conserving as much of that precious internal body temperature as possible.

7. Penguins are streamlined. This doesn’t require much explanation- they’re like little well-dressed torpedoes, heads shrunk into shoulders and feet stretched back near the tail for steering and maneuverability.

8. Penguin wings are no good for flying, obviously- too tiny and stiff. But they’re AWESOME flippers underwater, attached to strong breast muscles to beat against the dense cold water. Penguin breast bones are very impressive. The photos I have of penguin bones are sort of gruesome, so I won’t post them, but you can search for them if you want.

9. Penguins can drink salt water! I know I’ve talked about this before, but I still think it’s really cool that they have a special gland for removing much of the salt out of ocean water. They just sneeze it out and continue about their badass way.

10. With such stubby wings, penguins already couldn’t fly. But with no need for lightness of body and a good incentive to dive deep, penguins have evolved away from hollow bird bones to solid bones, dense and sink-y.

Precocious Penguins

Gentoo penguin with a rock.  Don't interrupt; he is VERY BUSY.

Gentoo penguin with a rock. Don’t interrupt; she is VERY BUSY.

I watched this penguin for half an hour, and have maybe a hundred photos of the busy bird (who I have named Sylvia). It’s very unclear if it is a male or female bird- I don’t think I could have been sure without some very invasive inspection or watching her lay an egg. (It’s hard to tell penguin sexes from the outside: they all wear tuxedos, which is their right as self-determining individuals freed from the constraints of a societally imposed gender binary.) But anyways, “she” was very industriously stealing all the rocks she could from penguin parents snoozing unaware on their eggs or chicks, sometimes sneaking away with beak clamped on a pebble and sometimes dodging snapping beaks with a squawk of protest. Moving with purpose (don’t get in her way) she carefully brought each stolen stone up a short slope to a precariously balanced pile, but when she added the new stone to the little heap, inevitably three would fall, rolling away down the rocky hill. With endless patience Sylvia would ferry each stone back up to the “nest.”

I guess by now most people are aware of penguin nesting behavior. A lot of courtship behavior for some species of penguins, gentoos and chinstraps included, involves a (probable) male presenting a (probable) female with a rock or a pile of rocks. This will be the basis for a nest, on which the parents will take turns brooding the eggs and eventual chicks while the other feeds at sea and returns with food for the young. However, gentoo penguins don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re two years old, leaving them a year in which to either stay at sea and grow or, more hilariously, return to the rookeries and confuse the older and younger birds.

Apparently young birds just do this sometimes, participate in the ritual of nest-building, act out their future nesting, with no actual mate or reproductive potential. It’s almost like kids and baby dolls, or… prom… or something. Next year, if she makes it through, Sylvia will return to this same beach and maybe even the same nesting site, find a partner, and start collecting pebbles all over again. How sweet.

Sylvia and I aren’t what you would call friends, though. I’m more like her creepy stalker. We did make some good friends on the boat! At this point in the trip, I’d started hanging around the naturalists as much as I could, collecting penguin facts and whale identifications along with career advice (do stuff!). We’d also had some very fun dinner conversations- a retired surgeon who traveled the world as a military doctor in his youth, a pair of business school professors with a talent for snarky humor and secret kindness, a high-powered business executive and her actor/director husband- and the dining room was starting to be as noisy as the colonies as each evening jokes were told and stories recounted. The Lindblad trips, with their partnership with National Geographic, attracted a really wonderful group of smart and motivated people, all of whom had life stories much longer and more interesting than mine. But that’s why I travel, and that’s why I love to learn! Someday I too will be interesting enough to listen to for hours at a time, whether it’s recounting whale facts or stories of my adventures as a Science Educator who changed the world. In the meantime, me and Sylvia will just keep building our little piles of rocks, piece by piece, and chasing after the bits that get away.

Rock on, little penguin.

Squawk and Bray

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A penguin colony is an overwhelming place. Sights, sounds, and smells abound, even from hundreds of feet away. The visual of thousands of nesting penguins all piled on the bare rocks is an impressive one, all black and white and pink from beaks and feet and krill-laden poop. The sound is even more aggressive: gentoos sound like donkeys braying when they reach their chests and beaks to the sky, and the lower-level muttering, squawking, and occasional hissing of aggression and defense amongst closely-packed penguin nests. And the smell… a combination of fish and a sort of sweaty salty odors, it clings to your clothes for days (forever? I haven’t found out yet when it goes entirely away…) and drifts down the rocky beaches until the sights and sounds fade away.

Our trip first took us to the Antarctic Peninsula; this photo was taken on Cuverville Island, which lies at 64°41′S 62°38′W. It is, according to Wikipedia, a “dark, rocky island lying in Errera Channel between Arctowski Peninsula and the northern part of Rongé Island, off the west coast of Graham Land in Antarctica.” It’s also home to the largest gentoo colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, composed of over 6500 pairs of breeding birds. Double that number and account for chicks and juvenile birds, and you’ve got well over 15,000 penguins. They were everywhere. As IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) members, our expedition was logically and rightfully required to approach no closer than 15 feet to nests and the penguins themselves… but it was nearly impossible to keep said penguins from approaching us.

There was nowhere to stand on the beach that wasn’t covered in penguin poop, traversed by busy birds moving to and from the water, or covered in penguins resting on their bellies (or all three at once!). As we stood in the clearest areas, they would pile up behind us like we were blocking a freeway, cocking their heads and craning their necks to see what the holdup was. When we moved out of their way, they would parade on past, wings held out behind them and stomping their feet like they were huffily making up for lost time. It was impossible, in some places, to stop and take a photo without feeling like we were totally in the way of penguin parents, who clearly had enough on their minds thank you very much, and just wanted to finish their commute and get home to the kids to put dinner on the table. Rush hour on the 101, for sure. If we successfully found a spot to sit and wait, though, we were well-rewarded. There could never be a boring moment on the island, sensory stimulation aplenty… and always the possibility that behind you something even more incredible was waiting to happen.

Gerlache Strait

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While many people will continue, for various reasons, to call the above animals “orcas,” I prefer to use the term “killer whale.”

First, it sounds rad. These whales ARE killer, man!

Second, it’s pretty out of the norm for a species* to be referred to by the second part of its two-part name (Orcinus orca, in this case- the first half is genus and the second half is the species designator). You’d never talk about “sapiens” and expect people to understand you meant “humans;” if you referred to “musculus” and expected me to know what animal you were talking about, I’d have to guess if you meant a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), or a house mouse (Mus musculus).

Third, and most importantly, I follow the opinion of scientists that I respect greatly in thinking that there’s no way that all of the different types of killer whales across the globe (oh yeah, they’re everywhere, in every ocean, doing their killer thing) are still one species. Just in the Antarctic, there are at least five types of distinguishable killer whales, each of which has a population separate from the others, probably with their own social structure, language, and feeding habits (further study needed). In the Pacific Northwest, where I did a week or two of research with Holly Fearnbach and John Durban (NOAA scientists and generally awesome human beings), three types of killer whales co-habitate but never interact, studiously avoiding contact while passing each other in a narrow strait, consuming different food sources, speaking different languages… Maybe it hasn’t been long enough in evolutionary time (hundreds of thousands of years) for them to have genetically diverged enough to make reproduction between groups impossible, but unless they’re forced (in captivity, for example…), different types of killer whales will never interbreed. In some cases, they’d have to cross continents to do so.

Anyways, these are the “small Type Bs,” also known as “Gerlache Strait killer whales.” They feed (probably) on deep-dwelling toothfish and other large predatory fish in the Antarctic, and are significantly smaller than the “large Type Bs,” which feed on seals. You can see in the photo their yellowish tinge- type Bs and Cs both have diatom (algae) coatings on their skin, which they travel north to shed- and the “cape” of grey around their backs. They can be distinguished from the large Bs by size, and from the Cs by the orientation and shape of their eye patches, and overall can be identified by their presence in their namesake, the Gerlache Strait. Aren’t they beautiful?