In Life, Some Things Are Black And White
All penguins are wonderful creatures but out here the penguins of the wild are not like the rather sweet, domesticated zoo penguins we are all mostly familiar with. On this bleak and barren coastline penguins have to fight to survive, to combat gale force winds and to live in extreme conditions without any shelter except that which they can organise themselves. Their legs are short and set far back on their bodies which causes the waddling effect which is so appealing. They have about 12 feathers to every square centimetre of body surface. Their feathers are short and form a very dense, waterproof coat which, together with the thick layer of blubber, protects against excessive heat loss. Penguins build their homes in the sandy ground, in tiny stone castles, set within the grasses where there are any, and every one seems to inhabit a separate burrow. They all have imaginary penguin ‘Keep Out’ notices which someone ignores at his or her peril. Penguins have a built-in confidence and are not intimidated by anyone else’s size. Some breeds of penguins use the beach stones to build their nests and will often steal stones from other penguins. The best fighters and stealers naturally have the highest nests. Penguins like to have fun and will use small icebergs as excursion boats; using their own built-in paddles.
Primarily of course they have to eat. Here they are not fed fish from a zoo keeper’s bucket. They have to dive into the freezing Atlantic waters and catch their own meals.
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Otherwise they go hungry. To see the penguins battling high, turbulent waves and diving again and again into the water really is a sight to behold. Raising and feeding their chicks is particularly arduous. The parents have to fight their way again and again into the ocean to find food and bring it back. Initially they take it in turns, presumably to rest up, as the chicks are never satisfied and drive the obliging parent quickly back to the sea.
Within the few months of summer the chicks need to grow quickly from tiny balls of grey to full-size penguins with waterproof feathers if they are to survive through the long, harsh winter. If the winter comes early as sometimes happens, then many chicks will not get sufficient to eat and will die. If all goes well however, the baby chicks start to resemble little bulging sacks of food. Soon both parents need to work at food gathering in order to satisfy the growing appetite of their young. They may all look alike to us but to the parents there is obviously a world of difference and they unerringly find their own offspring each trip they make. By the time the feeding process has ended and the chicks are grown enough to move off, the tired parents have lost half their own weight. They have also lost their old, worn feathers and must wait for new ones to grow before they can themselves swim off.
On the coast there are no Emperor or King penguins but several kinds of Magellanic penguins which are much smaller and without the distinctive yellow plumage the more majestic ones have. Early Antarctic explorers thought penguins were fish and initially classified them as such. They are of course birds, but superbly designed for ‘flying’ underwater as they cannot fly in the air — although every so often a penguin attempts to launch itself forward as if to question this fact. Perhaps there is a Jonathan Livingstone Seagull kind of story waiting to be written about William Shackleton Penguin. Unlike other birds their flippers cannot fold and are used to propel them forward at speed when under water. Their compact bodies, packed in blubber, have breastbones that work as keels and they also have massive paddle muscles. Their heads can actually retract so as to form a perfect hydrodynamic shape. The prime food here is krill, which is in plentiful supply in the Antarctic waters, and they can dive if necessary up to 500 feet for prey, although mostly they remain in the shallows. Fish are more a delicacy than a regular diet. It all depends whether a school of fish unwittingly visits the coast waters. Then watch the penguin feast.
In addition to the very impressive Emperors and Kings there are many species including the chinstrap, gentoo and Adelie, which are the kind mostly found in these parts. The latter, like the Adelie coastline, were named after the wife of the French explorer Dumont d’Urville. Either he missed her very much or she walked in a rather funny way; perhaps it was because of the stays and corsets most women wore in those more courtly days. Luckily he didn’t consider renaming the great auk (pinguinus impennis) after her, a bird often considered or mistaken to be part of the penguin family. Also flightless, plumper than the penguin and much sought after as a great delicacy, the great auk was eventually hunted into extinction. First by the indigenous peoples and then by the European sailors who found them easy and defenceless pickings. It is generally believed that collectors clubbed the last two great auk to death on Eldey Island in June 1844. What a tragic way to collect and what a loss to the world of nature. The Iceland Natural History Museum in 1971 paid $18,000 for a stuffed great auk, the highest price paid for a dead bird. A live great auk would be priceless. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated the principle with sad resignation, ‘Nature has decided; that which cannot defend itself shall not be defended.’
Fortunately the penguins are survivors, they seem completely fearless and are absolutely fascinating to observe. Oceanites is an international organisation set up to study living marine resources and specialises in penguins. The founder, Ron Naveen, is very concerned about the gradual warming continuing to take place, as penguins often suffer from overheating. Heat can only escape from the bare areas on their feet, at the base of their bills and from underneath their fins. Also, the reductions in the winter ice surrounding the continent diminishes the larval krill, their main food source. Naveen believes that studying penguins is a great way to understand the Antarctic ecosystem.
I collect some strangely-sculpted stones and a few pieces of oddly-shaped driftwood, all of which will help remind me of my time with the penguins. I wander constantly up and down the beaches, always keeping my distance and spend at least a further two hours watching their highly amusing antics. They ignore me but are still so aware of my presence. The youngest member of Scott’s earlier Antarctic expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, stated in his fascinating but terrifying expedition book, The Worst Journey In The World, published in 1922, ‘They are extraordinarily like children, these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children, or like old men, full of their own importance and late for dinner, in their black tail-coats and white shirt fronts and rather portly withal.’