Parental Proximity (More Penguins)

DSC08672

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.

DSC08596

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.

Advertisements

Expedition

DSC07860

Okay, after yesterday’s ALL FACTS ALL THE TIME post, here’s a bit more about the status of our expedition at the point in which I was really starting to get penguin-obsessed.

In the photo above, Linnea (our expedition co-leader, organizer of humans, named for Carolus Linnaeus (awesome), and general fabulous person) faces down one of the many gentoo penguins on Cuverville Island. We’d hiked up a hill to a lovely overlook, from which you could see down over the rookery at penguins building nests, stealing pebbles, sitting on eggs, hatching chicks, feeding their newborns, and hop-shuffling up and down the various penguin highways on the snowy slopes. And we were there thanks to Linnea and her husband, expedition leader Tim.

Our trip was originally billed as a journey from the Falklands (Malvinas) to South Georgia Island followed by a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, but when updated weather reports came in the night of our departure, the captain, Tim, Linnea, and I’m sure plenty of other people made the joint decision to follow the opposite path. Not only would that more accurately retrace the homeward journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer/leader of a doomed but spectacularly resilient expedition from 1914-17, but would also give us much (MUCH) nicer weather crossing the Drake Passage, known as the roughest piece of sea in the world. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and proved to be nearly perfectly ideal. As a result of their careful and quick planning, along with their commitment to getting us ashore at the coolest places in the southern hemisphere, we all grew to view Tim and Linnea as something just short of magical.

We made two landings almost every day we were near land, waking up each morning to Tim’s “Good morning, everybody, good morning!” The skies were preternaturally sunny with just enough cloudy texture, the water serene and reflective, the penguins charismatic and the crew cheerful and thrilled to be making their first stops on the Peninsula as well. We’d all begun to get to know each other (Jenessa and Noah were always on the last boat back to the ship from shore with us, the youngest girl on board and I had started to perfect our games of Gin Rummy, and all of the photographers on board could recognize each other by camera equipment alone) and we could begin to pick out penguin and whale species from a fair distance based on behavior and coloration- each day felt like four days’ worth of activity, and we thought they’d never end. We were astoundingly lucky, both to have such an adventurous leadership and such glorious weather.

DSC08876

Perfect Ten

DSC08062

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

DSC07829

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.

First Penguins

DSC06921

The first penguins we saw on our trip were from the ship (the Orion). These Chinstraps seemed to be headed back toward shore after some successful foraging at sea, using their wings and feet to propel themselves through the frigid water (Tim, the expedition leader, announced the temperature to be somewhere around 1 degree Celsius…). Like dolphins, penguins often “porpoise” through the water as they travel. By clearing the waves entirely, they fly through the air and maintain forward momentum while still breathing regularly, reducing the drag they experience at the intersection of ocean and sky. To predators this motion may be very confusing; to photographers it can be both endlessly entertaining and endlessly frustrating, as most penguin-porpoising photos involve a larger proportion of feet and tail feathers than heads and bodies. But as always, patience and a large memory card are their own rewards…