23 Oct 2018

Expedition To Emperor Penguins by Maureen


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We woke up this morning to blinding light coming from our porthole window. I really could not see out. This was a good sign as it means we were surrounded by ice!

I got dressed, layered on my jackets, and went for a quick stroll outside on my deck. We are in Antarctica! It’s exactly as I pictured, but even better now that I’m experiencing it.

I went back inside for breakfast in the dining room — my first on the ship — then bundled up a bit better for a longer stay out on deck to take photos. The scenery is stunning. Icebergs surround us - some humungous and well grounded, others floating by - the ocean is covered in ice except in the trail of where we’ve just been and the occasional bare patch. The water is a deep black color, but it turns beautiful shades of blue around the floating icebergs. The ice atop the water is also beautifully colored in blues and grays and whites.

Watching the ice breaker ship do its work is mesmerizing. I’ve taken lots of videos because photos cannot do it justice. My favorite thing is to watch the cracks in the ice appear — they’re like lightning bolts at first, zig-zagging through the surface, then they begin to separate and the deep black water fills in. Sometimes ice chunks come off, revealing a gorgeous turquoise ice color or the brown bottom where algae/diatoms collect on the underside of the ice sheets.

Today was also my first day to see critters that were not seabirds. We saw our first emperor penguins - they were at a distance, running across an ice sheet and into the water, away from our ship. We also saw a couple Weddel seals napping on the ice, only waking as we got fairly close in the ship.

Top photo: the bow of the ship as we make our way through some thin ice
Middle photo: beautiful blues of a small floating iceberg
Bottom photo: Weddel seal being rudely awoken from its nap

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We’ve stopped. It seems that we’re not quite sure the best route to take through the sea ice to get to where we want to be. Fortunately, the weather is sunny and bright and that means that the ice pilot can take to the sky to find us the best route. The helicopter mechanics pull out one of the helis, attach its rotor blades, get inside, and take off.

As we stand around on deck waiting for the pilot to return, we were greeted by several groups of emperor penguins swimming in the waters around our ship. At least we know we’re close’ish to the colony!

After the pilot returned, the captain and his guys worked on a plan of action. And since there was one helicopter out and ready to go, we were broken up into groups to go down and learn the procedure for boarding through both sets of doors and what signals to look for from the staff (stop, go, etc.).

Top photo: helicopter arriving from its reconnaissance mission
Middle photo: swimming emperor penguins
Bottom photo: helicopter orientation

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After setting down a path (not a straight one) through the ice, we have arrived at a good stopping point close to the colony! From here, we’ll have a short helicopter ride out to the colony in the morning, so long as weather conditions permit. The helis do need good visibility, especially the ability to distinguish the horizon which isn’t always possible in snowy/icy white/foggy conditions where the ice cover and sky blend together. All our fingers are crossed for a clear tomorrow.

Top, middle, and bottom photos: some of the ice conditions we faced

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There are 18 species of penguins in the world. We are here to see just one species: the emperor penguin. There are two species within their genus: king and emperor — they have many common features and look very similar, however, the emperor is the largest.

POPULATION: Kings are subantarctic and live on the islands around Antarctica; their population is estimated at 1.6 million pairs. Emperors are only on Antarctica’s coasts within 54 colonies; their population is estimated at 238,000 pairs. Lifespan is about 20 years.

BREEDING CYCLE: Kings and emperors only lay one egg per breeding cycle. The emperor breeding cycle is 8 months ~Apr-Dec — matches the sea ice cycle.

December - March: They use ~3-4 months to get fit (=fat, they double their body weight) to be able to endure the 8mo breeding cycle. The penguins come to shore to breed ~mid March and they walk or toboggan (slide on their bellies) to get to the colony. They’re all together by late March.

April: Courtship. They practice seasonal monogamy = one partner per breeding season, but not annually; only ~15% of pop stays together year after year. Other penguin species, except kings, have ~80% monogamy. This could be because they don’t have nests or could be because there are more females in the population. Many males don’t make it through the winter/incubation period.
Breeding is difficult - they’re very fat, it’s crowded, and other penguins interrupt.

May: Egg-laying. They produce thick shells (0.8-1.4mm) that they incubate on their feet. Then comes the very important egg transfer. Females lay the egg and then very carefully pass the egg from her feet to her mate’s feet. Up to 25% of eggs are lost during this process. The females leave the colony to feed - she is exhausted and skinny after producing the egg, so she will walk kilometers to the ocean to feed and regain body fat. Because of this, it’s not safe for females to take turns incubating egg.

June-early Aug: Egg incubation by the males. Males have a brood patch where bare, featherless skin transfers heat to the egg. Males will rotate the egg on their feet to keep all parts warm. They will sleep a lot while incubating and undergo a ~10% reduction in metabolic rate. They huddle together to keep warm and the mass of males is always moving in a dense pack to avoid heat loss. In the huddle, the heat can be high (37.5C), so they rotate from the outside to the inside of the huddle and back. The huddles only last about 2 hours to avoid over-heating, plus it’s also good for their metabolism. When in a huddle, a male may lose 150g/day of metabolic mass vs. a lone, non-huddling male would lose 300g/day.

Mid-July-mid-Aug: Hatching. Hatchlings stay on the male’s feet to avoid the ice. The chick is hungry, so males make a “crop milk” from the lining of the male’s esophagus (~60% proteins, 30% fats). Chicks will be fed a few days and will start to appear out from under the male’s feet. Males are waiting for the females to return to help feed the chick. At the end of the 4 month fast, males have lost 45% body weight (~9% body fat is left (was 45% when they arrived) — they still have to walk to a place to feed which can take days — they seek out openings in the ice that remain year after year. Leopard seals know that males will be making their way to these openings and wait to feed on these skinny guys.
Females don’t digest the food they have taken in, so when they arrive back to the chicks, they will feed the chicks what they caught at sea.
There will be different sized chicks because females don’t lay eggs at exactly the same time.

Aug-mid-Nov: Chick-rearing. At about 30 days, chicks will start to explore and parents need to watch them. At about 45-60 days, the parents will not allow the chick onto their feet anymore - they are now adolescents. Parents leave the chicks so that they can go feed and bring back food. The chicks form their own huddles and creshes. Unfortunately, some chicks can’t wait for their parents to return and starve. Also, gulls and skuas will take chicks.
As the ice melts, parents’ commute is shorter to the open water. They give 20% of take to chicks and keep 80% to themselves (they need to prepare for the next breeding season).

Nov-Dec: Chick molt and departure. By early Dec, the chicks will follow the parents to the water and then the parents stop feeding chicks. The chicks will molt their downy feathers for waterproof feathers and fledge. They’re hungry, so they will start to swim. They will begin to wander and not come back to land, only coming back to land to breed. They have ~60% survival rate during the first year - the chicks are so small and can have trouble feeding or they will be fed upon. They will first return to the colony at 4 years and will attempt to breed the next year.