I held on to my camera in the Antarctic wind as the Zodiac approaches the land in front of me. A gigantic glacier, which ended abruptly as it touched the ocean, originated between two snowy hills embellished with stark rocks. The two ends of the glacier were pebble beaches, one of which formed a little cove, providing a natural landing site for the Greenwich Island.
As soon as I slid off the zodiac, I strode across the pebbles, which I found surprisingly sizable as I made my walk through them. They were of different shapes, some perfectly round and glassy, some appeared oblong, while some had sharp edges, rendering it somewhat difficult to navigate through. Nevertheless, I didn’t let them slow me down, and stumbled towards my destination. My destination, of course, was not the colossal glacier that stood in front of me, but was a group of elegant creatures that haunted my dreams.
A small group of Gentoo Penguins manifested themselves on the pebble beach. I got closer and closer to them, and decided to sit down quietly, fearing I’d disturb them if I didn’t maintain some distance. My attempt to be noiseless was proven a failure. I almost set off a small pebble landslide when I lowered myself to the ground. The penguins didn’t seem to care much. After observing me for a while, they were curious enough to slowly made their way to me. As they jumped from pebble to pebble, their black and white body blended perfectly with the bright blue glacier. I raised my camera clumsily and started to take pictures.
I lingered in front of these penguins for an hour before realizing that it was time to return to the Zodiac. I unwillingly abandoned them and headed towards the Zodiac. I’d soon find out that it was probably foolish to spend so much time among five or six penguins, but I’d never find a scene as breathtaking and serene as this place.
It was not the first time that I saw penguins in the wild. Even though they are generally south hemisphere seabirds, only two species of penguins are true Antarctic creatures. Other species of penguins can be found in countries like South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina. The Galapagos Penguins are even distributed north of the Equator.
Three month prior to my departure to Antarctica, I’d seen my first species of penguins, Magellanic Penguins, at Peninsula Valdes in Argentina. It didn’t spark much of an emotional reaction when I actually saw a colony of Magellanic Penguins in proximity. To my disappointment, they were already accustomed to visitors and cameras, and some of them even lied on the trail. A probably more important reason was the environment that these penguins were living in – the weather was dry and warm. It was incongruent to my stereotypical image of where penguins ought to live in. There was just something so compelling about the combination of penguins and a remote, icy world like Antarctica.
The Zodiac came to another side of the Greenwich Island called Fort Point as I mulled over my first encounter with antarctic penguins. I couldn’t help but grinned when I saw hundreds of penguins on shore. I started to hear the deafening sound of penguin calls. Later I’d learn that penguins are vocal creatures, which allows penguins to identify each other among thousands of similar individuals. I also started to smell the strong and abysmal scent of penguin guano, a scent that I’d get very familiar with for the following few days. I hopped on shore with exuberance and was immediately amazed by the sheer amount of penguins breeding at this place. In order to minimize human disturbance, a parameter were set up in front of the borders of the colony to maintain a reasonable distance from the sensitive penguins. The man in charge of this precaution is Fabrice, a French ornithologist that would earn my respect and admiration during the voyage.
Fabrice was a passionate and silver-haired frenchman who speaks English with a thick French accent. His adventurous spirit and lively manner while being in the wild belied his ages. His earliest experience with the polar region dated back to 1989, when he studied the breeding behavior of blue petrel at the Kerguelen Islands, a remote French subantarctic territory. Three years later, he’d begin to work as a field guide and a lecturer in expeditions to the polar regions. He’d still wear the same red coat (also a Personal Floating Device) up to this day, only to find it severely bleached by sunlight and covered by dirt. “You know, it still floats on water.” he explained to us when being asked about it, while sitting on the Yamaha engine of the Zodiac and resting his hand on the direction controller.
After working as a polar guide season after season, he’d develop a predilection towards penguins. “You can find me where the penguins are,” he told me with a big smile on his face at the lunch table, “I like penguins.” That was very true. Whenever we had a landing, I’d always find him standing in front of a penguin colony and looking at the penguins. When people came up to him bearing different questions, he’d always humbly answer them with patience. From my interactions with him, never did he not have a satisfying answer to my questions about birds: it was from him that I learned that when a penguin returns to its nest from the ocean, it vocalizes so that it and its partner could identify each other.
Back to Fort Point, Greenwich Island, Fabrice found two Macaroni penguins among the Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins. I heard the news and hurried to the frontier of the parameter to spot them myself—after all a Macaroni penguin was not a guarantee on this expedition. I looked through my binoculars in hopes of finding the pair of Macaroni penguins, and I did manage to espy them with relatively ease. Their golden forehead, which continued as a tuft, stood out among the black and white Chinstrap penguins around them. They were about one meter apart—the female was incubating on their nest while the male resting on a higher rock. Later I’d come to know that their baby (or babies) probably won’t make it through the first year because they won’t have enough time to become strong when it’s time for them to leave the breeding site. The fate of the progeny of these two penguins was uncertain and unfavorable, and I wondered if they realized that themselves.
The same rule applies to the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. For the ones that were still incubating their eggs, their progeny probably won’t survive the first year.
For the majority of the penguins on the Greenwich Island, on the other hand, their chicks were already several weeks old. These chicks would rely on extensive parental care before coming together with other chicks. Therefore, this is the most sensitive time of their lives as they require one of their parents around them at all times. The other parent would be at sea and hunt for krill and fish in order to fill their body with food. According to Fabrice, a penguin that weighs 6 kilograms usually carries up to 1 kilogram of food, which appears to me as an impressive feat. The penguin would then return to its nest and feed its babies with cud.
I stood with awe in front of the hundreds of penguins in front of me while Fabrice talked about how penguins breed. As a bird watcher, I probably spent too much time learning how to identify one species of bird, but I did not understand why these species are the way they are, and how they manage to thrive. Learning about penguins, I was amazed by all the details that I was oblivious to.
I ambled around, and noticed a juvenile penguin chasing around its parent, asking for food. Poor penguin! With an empty stomach, the parent could do nothing but to wait for its partner’s return. Hopefully, by the end of the breeding season, the small penguin could be chubby as a balloon, and ready for its first winter.
My one-hour staying time on Greenwich Island quickly elapsed, and once again, I found myself reluctant to leave this smelly, noisy, yet amazing little world. The wind started to pick up, so I held on firmly to the safety rope at the side of the Zodiac, and watched the colony become tinier and tinier, until I could only see a giant dark patch on the shore.