Five days in Antarctica pass in a blur of activity; wild life, icebergs , incredible scenery and the white, white snow. It is a magical feeling, setting foot on the 7th continent, struggling across snow and ice, listening to the silence and inhaling the cleanest air I am ever likely to inhale
Each day starts with getting dressed. Nothing unusual in that, except now it takes about 15 minutes as I don layer after layer of clothing, starting with merino wool long johns and long sleeve T shirt, heavy weight sweat pants, sweat shirt, puffer jacket, waterproof parka, waterproof pants, two pairs of merino wool socks, insulated calf length waterproof boots, woolly hat, scarf, gloves, ski poles and finally a life jacket. And that’s before leaving the cabin. Squeezing through the door becomes quite a challenge. We struggle along the corridor getting seriously overheated and down the stairs to the small opening in the side of the ship. We clamber into a zodiac for a ride to shore, and experience cold like we have never felt before
The expedition team has scouted out a suitable landing spot. Sometimes it is a pebble beach which is easy, but requires stepping into the water, which is where the waterproof pants and boots come into play
At other times we have to clamber out onto rocks which is a little more difficult. But there are hordes of helpers in blue jackets to help a few orange jacketed passengers
And then it is all about the penguins .
The Adelie penguin is probably my favorite.
It is the smallest of the penguins and the hardiest, living further south than any other penguin and surviving in and on the ice. It is not uncommon to pass an iceberg and spot a couple of Adelies sitting on top of it
It has a short stubby beak and wears the classic penguin black and white evening dress without a touch of color. Its only distinguishing mark is a white rim around its eye.
It has two characteristics. The first is that it is always busy, busy, busy. Always rushing, always doing something. It’s motto is never walk if you can run. The second is that it is stupid. They say it always takes at least ten Adelies to make a decision. One will arrive on the edge of the ice but won’t go in the water until others arrive. Then they debate for ages about whether to dive in or whether to turn round and go back. They look at each other and squawk, then they look at the water and squawk some more. Eventually one will make the plunge, or it might turn round. Then they all follow.
It has two main predators, the killer whale and the leopard seal. We pass a small iceberg with a couple of dozen Adelies congregating round a sleeping leopard seal. Now that is really stupid
Sadly the Adelie penguin is not doing well. Their numbers are declining rapidly due to global warming (Whatever Mr Trump says, the average temperature in Antarctica has risen 5 degrees in the last 30 years). This in turn leads to more frequent and heavier snowfall. The Adelies like to return to the same rocky area each year to nest. In the last few years those areas have been covered with snow which makes things too cold and too wet for hatching the eggs. The Adelie not being the smartest penguin on the ice and despite years of experience, still lays its eggs in the same place where they are destined never to hatch
The Gentoo penguin is slightly larger, more adaptable and a lot smarter than the Adelie and it is thriving. If the area they nested on last year is not good this year, they find somewhere else to rear their chicks. The Gentoo has a longer beak with a flash of orange on it, and a white patch above its eye.
The gentoo moves at a slower pace and is capable of making its own decisions without the help of others.
The Chinstrap penguin is similar in size to the Adelie but has a more streamlined looking head adorned with a black cap, held in place by a strap under the chin
But it doesn’t matter which penguin you are looking at, they are all adorable, and we can and do spend hours on the ice watching them
These penguins make their colonies and nest in areas where the rocks are not covered by snow (except sadly the dumb Adelies). Sometimes that can be a long way from the sea
The male and the female take turns sitting on the nest while the other goes to sea to feed. There are well developed trails through the snow which they use.
The trails are only wide enough for one way traffic which can cause problems
But hand signals, or rather flipper signals, can be used to ease the situation
However leaving the trail and trying to make their own way through the snow is much more difficult
Penguins find rocky outcrops with no snow on them to bring up their chicks. Their nests are made out of pebbles and are clearly not designed for comfort
but the pebbles allow the rain and melting snow to drain through the nest keeping the eggs and the chicks dry.
A female generally has two eggs which hatch a couple of days apart. If you look carefully you can see the newborn chick and the egg in this photo
It takes the newborn chick two days to develop its neck muscles so that it can hold up its head to be fed
Competition for the best and highest nest is strong. The pebbles have to be brought up from the beach one at a time in the penguin’s beak which is a long and strenuous job. It is much simpler to steal the pebbles from another nest.
The owner of the nest will attempt to fight off the marauding penguin but is at a serious disadvantage because it can’t leave the egg it is hatching
The thief then takes the pebble back to its spouse and presents it to with a bow, no doubt pretending that it has been carried all the way up from the beach.
No discussion of penguins can be held without discussing penguin poop. It is quite disgusting and is of course everywhere. You can always tell when you are nearing a penguin colony by the smell which at times can be overwhelming, but the penguins don’t seem to mind.
There is no toilet etiquette. They poop whenever they feel like it. They are a little like school kids with their farting. They lean forward, lift their tail and let rip. It is quite liquid and comes out of the penguin with considerable force , creating a projectile stream
The poop can travel some distance hitting other penguins in the face or body or unsuspecting tourists on the feet.
Any penguin nest is marked by lines of penguin poop radiating out from the centre like a clock. The color varies depending on what the penguin has been eating. If it is white they have been eating fish, pink and they have been eating krill, mixed colors and they have been having a smorgasbord.
Not only does all this penguin poop make for a very unpleasant smell, but it also makes a mess of the pristine antarctic. But help is on its way in the form of nature’s own pooper scooper. There is an attractive looking bird called the snowy sheathbill with a rather unattractive habit. It feeds on carrion but when that is not available it happily eats penguin poop. They can be seen running around penguin colonies happy as a clam as they never go hungry. Somehow, despite wallowing in penguin poop, they manage to stay a snowy white
They don’t bother the penguins. In fact the penguins are probably happy to have someone clean up after them. However another much larger bird does bother the penguin.
The skua’s main diet is penguin eggs and penguin chicks. They can be seen circling any penguin colony looking for an unattended egg or chick.
They swoop in and moments later fly off with an egg
or worse, a chick
The penguins fiercely guard their chicks but are no match for the aggressive skua
The skuas make no attempt to conceal their intentions and nest in the rocks just above the penguins so that they can feed and look after their chicks at the same time
There is another much larger animal which the penguins happily welcome to their colonies. And that would be us. As we have been carefully trained not to disturb the penguins, they seem to accept us without hesitation. We are all dressed identically in matching orange parkas so perhaps they think we are some giant breed of penguin. Some are curious and come right up to us, but most just carry on their busy lives, paying us little attention.
It is a delight to spend so much time with them and for once I am happy to be ignored.