8. Penguins

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June 5th 2008
Published: June 17th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

8.1 A gentoo penguin rookery8.1 A gentoo penguin rookery8.1 A gentoo penguin rookery

There is a pink algal growth on the snow in the background.
I had a laminated poster in my lab of emperor, I think, penguins crossing a small ice shelf in the half light towards their rookery. I had sub-titled it 'When the going gets tough the tough get going'. I had hoped that this would provide some inspiration to those slothful students that passed through from time to time!
So, it was with some anticipation that I came down to Antarctica to, among other things, see the real thing. The first penguins we saw in any numbers were gentoos and I think that Bernard Stonehouse may have had them in mind when he wrote: "I have often had the impression that, to penguins, man is just another penguin - different, less predictable, occasionally violent, but tolerable company when he sits still and minds his own business." The gentoos at Port Lockroy certainly gave one this impression: they seemed to be seeking man's company, or perhaps protection, as they nested next to and even under the huts. However, the chinstraps at Hydrurga Rocks seemed more self-contained but not particularly smart. Certainly, they looked a bit ridiculous when they stuck their heads in the air to make that unpleasant squawk with their chinstraps holding their beanies on. But perhaps life was tougher here because when they took to the water they were certainly aware that there were leopard seals off-shore.
But penguins didn't really grab me. Not like I'd hoped; imagined. Not like the minke whale did. Why's that? I think perhaps because we were not seeing them in their true element. Not from under water or zooming up onto an ice-shelf to land, plop, at the top. And unfortunately we didn't see any of the toughest of the tough. Those male emperors shuffling around in howling winds at -50° with eggs on their feet and no food - and 100km from it - in their stomachs.
In 2008, when we went to the Weddell Sea side of the Antarctic Peninsular, we saw several colonies of Adelie penguins, a species I hadn't seen in 2002. These were named by the French explorer, D'Umont Durville, for his wife, Adelie as is Adelie Land on continental Antarctica. Adelie penguins seem to be similar to Gentoos in behaviour, so that Bernard Stonehouse may well have been writing about the former, but the adult's feathers and beaks are only black and white: perhaps the classic 'dinner-suited' penguin.

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