Although I was initially more intrigued by the incredible beauty of the ice and snow in Antarctica, I soon discovered that this is a magical land much more thrilling than I could ever have imagined. The reason? Abundant wildlife and especially penguins.Watching these peculiar animals of the Southern Ocean was exciting and quite riveting.When landing on the mainland where large groups of penguins lived on our Antarctic expedition, we didn’t want to disturb or frighten them, so we stayed at least 15 feet away (even though sometimes they came closer to us). We learned that wildlife always has right of way in Antarctica. So we kept our distance from “penguin highways,” distinguishable paths they take to go in and out of the ocean.
Yes, penguins are fun to watch, partly because they are social animals and their interactions often resemble those of humans. Moms feeding chicks, youngsters cavorting on the snow, splashing in the sea, waddling on the ice—it was all delightful to see as we observed several different colonies during our journey down south.Chinstrap penguins are plentiful and easy to distinguish because of their black back and head and line across the chin. We learned that a male will build a nest from rocks and then wait for a female to come ashore and accept his nest. In the process, the male bows his head as the female comes by and watches her rearrange the rocks. He might even offer her another rock to entice her to stay. Quite an interesting ritual.
When our ship anchored at Point Jougla, the main attraction was a gentoo penguin colony. It was molting time (February), so many of the penguins were stuffed full because they would not eat again until new feathers came in (two-three weeks). The reason is that penguins are not waterproof during molting, so it’s dangerous for them to go into the ocean to look for food even though they are excellent swimmers.We watched the gentoos for more than an hour as they waddled on the rocks and snow. Many were conserving energy during this fasting time by moving very little. However, when a vulture flew into the colony intent on swooping down on a dead penguin, the others squawked noisily and scattered immediately to protect the young chicks.
Adelie penguins are the key species on Petermann Island. Some babies were still being protected by mother penguins during our visit. Others were getting feathers and were close to going to sea. We were fascinated by their antics—chasing each other, sliding on their bellies, and testing their position in the social structure of the colony. For example, two penguins ran off from a third who tried to keep up and dejectedly turned back, while the other two playfully scooted down the hill.However, as the ocean water warms and ice melts, Adelies have been decreasing in number and moving south, following the food supply. Gentoos are also gradually moving south although their numbers are increasing because they have a more flexible diet. They also feed their chicks longer before going to sea, which results in better survival rates. Chinstraps, on the other hand, are generally heading north. Scientists tag and track penguins in Antarctica to better understand their movement and the reasons for seeking new territories.
Still we marvel at the ability of penguins to adapt to life on the ice. For example, they fluff their feathers underwater, a technique that releases bubbles that act as lubrication allowing them to move through the water faster. Adaptations like this allow penguins to survive in this generally inhospitable place.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier