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.