What is it about penguins that we find so adorable? Their clown-like walks? Their formal attire? Their grace in water? Or maybe it’s their dedication as parents, raising one or two chicks, requiring weeks without eating while they stand guard. They are birds who can’t fly yet swim better than fish.
I recently had the honour of venturing to Antarctica on a scientific expedition to learn the effects of climate change and human impacts on the delicate environment of the ice continent. We were able to get up close and personal with colonies of Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Adelie penguins. We had to be especially strict about bio-security as a bird flu virus is spreading across the world and would be devastating should it take hold in Antarctica, and had to keep at least 5 metres from the penguins to prevent disruption to their lives.
Fulfilling this lifelong dream to visit the last of the seven continents went beyond my expectations. The scenery left me gasping, the wildlife had me smiling, but learning about the human impact on this seemingly pristine environment left me in despair. I attended lectures on board ship and learnt of the threat from deep sea mining and krill fishing; of tourism numbers in excess of 100,000 per year and the increase in carbon in the snow as a result, making it melt even faster; of the damage to the small creatures at the bottom of the food chain through ocean acidification and micro-plastic pollution.
In coming weeks I will post about the seals, whales, and other seabirds I met, the delicate vegetation I saw, and the amazing environment of glaciers and icebergs. Meanwhile, enjoy these images I took on my journey.
I can’t pick a favourite penguin. The Gentoos and Chinstraps are not as tall or in such vast colonies as the Emperor and King penguins, and are often seen together. Gentoos are the only penguins with white on top of their heads, and have distinctive orange beaks. Chinstraps are easily identified by the namesake black line running below their head. Even smaller, the Adelies have feathery topknots.
Native only in the southern hemisphere, these three species make up the genus Pygoscelis, also known as the brush-tailed penguins. All three are dependent on krill (tiny shrimp-like crustaceans) for food, which require ice for food and protection. With the ocean’s rapid warming, particularly at the poles, ice is reducing and so, therefore, is the amount of krill. This situation is exacerbated by krill fishing, for products such as food for farmed fish, fish oil products, and livestock/pet feed.
We visited one Gentoo rookery where the birds have to trek up a steep hill to reach the protection of a rocky outcrop where their chicks are safe from the calving glacier. Huge chunks of ice crash into the ocean, sending waves metres high up the beach. The adults scramble, slide and hop up and down runways in the ice, carrying partially digested food in their bellies to feed their chicks before swapping places with their life-long partner.
Penguins rely on their feathers for insulation and water-proofing. Each year, the penguins molt over a period of several weeks. During this time they are unable to go in the water and thus feed, so stay as still as possible to reduce energy use. We encountered a small group of Adelies on a small iceberg. If the ice were to melt before the penguins had completed their molt, they would be unable to survive in the water.
Penguin numbers are declining. Their environment is changing so rapidly that they can’t adapt quickly enough to survive. I hate to think of a world with no penguins.
If you would like to know more, please contact me for a comprehensive list of research papers and reports. If you want to act, here are a few useful links as a starting point.
Mission Blue, an organisation driving for a global network of marine protected areas.
Say no to deep sea mining campaign.
Krill fisheries and sustainability report by CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.