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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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.