24 Oct 2018

Expedition To Emperor Penguins by Maureen


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Today was GLORIOUS!

We were awoken at 5:15am and told over the loud speaker that the weather conditions were cold, clear, and crisp — perfect for the helicopters. (If too cold, the helicopters need to warm up for a couple hours (!) for the oil to perform properly.)

Starting at 6:30am, the helicopter groups were called down to muster — lining up in an orderly way so that each of us is checked off the ship and tracked by an ID number we were each given. By ~7:15, my group was boarded and by 7:30, we were on Snow Hill Island and only about a mile away from the penguin colony. This was my FIRST helicopter ride ever! I approve of this mode of transport

We landed at Basecamp — a makeshift heli pad, a large tent full of supplies (should we need them), and a toilet without any kind of screen/privacy. The setting was actually quite pretty as we were up against a wall of blue ice. Basecamp is set up about a mile from the penguin colony so as not to disturb the penguins.

We grabbed our backpacks/camera bags and met with Woody, the Expedition Leader for this trip. He gave us the run down: stick to the flagged path the staff have created for us to reach the penguin colony, don’t approach the penguins, keep a good distance from the penguins though the penguins are allowed to approach us, no touching penguins, no food allowed except lunch served at Basecamp, and use the toilet at Basecamp or the one nearer the colony.

And so we all started down the flagged path towards the colony, taking in the scenery around us. We’re not technically ON Snow Hill Island, but instead on the “fast ice” that is fastened (hence “fast”) to the land. We’ve been told the ice we’re on is probably 2-3m thick. While here, we all need to wear a PFD - personal floatation device - a red lifejacket that will self-inflate if submerged. Luckily, they’re fairly thin over our big bulky jackets and not like the thick, boxy orange lifejackets we have to use on the ship in case of emergency, so they’re not much of a nuisance.

And while walking down the snowy path, we were greeted by some tobogganing emperor penguins! Seems they like to use our path too.

Top photo: helicopter landing at Basecamp
Middle photo: our first up-close penguins!
Bottom photo: tobogganing penguins

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As we walk closer to the colony, we can hear a great cacophony. We can’t yet see the full colony as they’re behind a hill, but the adult penguins are whistling (we would probably need a kazoo to replicate it) and the chicks are also chirping away. As soon as we walk around the hill, we are presented with a great plain of penguins!

The colony is really made up of lots of smaller sub-colonies that the penguins wander in and out of throughout the day. From our point of view, there is a kind of fat line of penguins to our right, an empty road down the center, and some additional sub-colonies a bit further off to our left. At the “end” of our road, there is a little hill that some photographers have set up their tripods on.

I realize quickly that there is no guano smell. On South Georgia Island, there is a very distinct smell of penguins. But here, I don’t smell it. It’s really quite nice. And the guano here is green, not pink. I know the South Georgia penguins eat a lot of krill and now I’m wondering what these guys eat that turns the snow green.

Today, I move from sub-colony to sub-colony, watching the adults and chicks interact. It’s a warm day (for Antarctica) and the penguins all look hot. Many lie in the snow to cool off. We see quite a few dead chicks. It’s no wonder considering the harsh conditions they are up against here. There are gulls and skuas flying over the colony occasionally. I’ve noticed that when the gulls call as they fly over the colony, all the chicks run and huddle together, but not so if the gulls remain quiet as they soar.

At one point during the afternoon, a small airplane flies over the colony, setting off all the penguins in to a flurry of flapping wings. The plane flies over several times, causing this penguin reaction each time. I asked Tom Hart, the Penguinologist, about this plane. He thinks it’s the Argentinian government checking up on our operations — making sure our Basecamp, people, and procedures are following regulations. However, that plane should not have been flying so low as to cause a reaction from the penguins. The government may be receiving a complaint from our Penguinologist or trip leaders...

As we watch the penguins, we observe a penguin highway that we all must stand clear of, timing our crossings when the penguins are through. And we watch as adult penguins, usually one or two, seem to escort groups of chicks from sub-colony to sub-colony. Sometimes, brave groups of chicks go out alone. And in places where there snow mounds to climb, the chicks seem to want to play King of the Mountain and get to the top, even when the incline is way too steep to climb.

This was an amazing day.

Top photo: typical scene within the colony
Middle photo: posing adults
Bottom photo: King of the Mountain