Sunday, December 9, 2007

Penguins and Seals and Whales, Oh My!

For ten years I visited classrooms talking about Antarctica and teaching children and teachers about the wildlife in Antarctica. Some students began calling me the “Penguin Lady,” so when I was selected as a TEA (Teacher Experiencing Antarctica) in 2002, one of the main things I wanted to see was a…polar bear! (Just kidding…I hope ALL of you know they are only found in the Arctic!) Of course, I really wanted to see a penguin. As luck would have it, the huge iceberg that had broken off the year before was pushed up against the coast and penguins were not in abundance that year. The only one that was sighted came walking by our field camp the day I was getting a cast put on my broken wrist, so I missed him! (THAT’s a story for another day!) My team took hundreds of pictures of the little adelie penguin they named, Charlie, and through them, I felt I had seen him, too…but in reality…ah well. Life is cruel sometimes.

So imagine my excitement when Jean Pennycook, a TEA friend of mine and the education outreach director for David Ainley’s, invited me to come out to visit the rookery at Cape Royds! It would give us a chance to talk about how we are each approaching education outreach for our science teams. I brought Steve Petrushak, an ANDRILL scientist, and Rainer Lehmann, the German ARISE teacher. We packed up our sleep kits and “P” bottles (and yes, that’s what they are for!) for camping overnight, and headed out in a pisten bully with Rob Robbins and his dive team. (see the last few pictures.) It was a two-hour drive across the sea ice. The divers dropped us at the Cape Royds camp and then set up their camp on the sea ice where they melted a hole and did three dives to retrieve a current meter. It took them 12 hours to melt the hole, and then several hours to do the dives, so we had from 6 pm until about noon to explore with Jean.

Jean and me--a very cold day!

Jean welcoming us to the Ainley camp. You can see the Jamesway and one of the Scott tents.

Jean and David welcomed us with a wonderful spaghetti dinner—we had brought a fresh loaf of bread from the galley—and then we walked to the penguin rookery. Their camp is over several large hills and quite a distance from the penguins. I asked why so far, but when we got there I understood the reason! The birds are raucous as they call to their mates, and the young males without mates are constantly making displays and loudly shouting their virility to the world hoping a female will notice them. And the smell is reminiscent of a barnyard!

The penguin rookery is an “ASMA” area—Antarctic Specially Managed Area”- so we were not allowed to walk through it, but we were able to stand on a hill overlooking the area and take lots of pictures. I was amazed that as we stood with the 2000 mating pairs of penguins to our left, and the sea ice to our right, that it was only about 200 meters to OPEN ocean! I asked about that, because when we flew in, there were hundreds of miles of frozen ocean before we reached the continent. How could this water be open? David explained that it is a polyna. “Polyna” is a Russian word meaning unfrozen water surrounded by ice. There is some mystery to how these form in the Southern Ocean, but this one was probably blown free of ice by the strong winds experienced here recently, and as a result of the huge iceberg finally breaking up and moving north. At any rate, the penguins are enjoying a much shorter walk to their dinner “tables” and "showers"!

After several years of a declining population at this Adelie penguin rookery, it has shown an increase this year, and we were thrilled to hear that. Many of the birds are wing-tagged or have microchips for tracking. There are four penguin colonies being studied by Ainley’s group. They are from Cape Royds, the smallest with about 4000 birds, to Cape Bird, Beaufort Island and Cape Crozier, the largest with 130,000 birds. The success of the birds may have something to do with the nearness of the open water, so foraging is much easier. I asked about leopard seals and whether they were a problem predator for this colony. Since this is a small colony, it would not support a leopard seal’s need for massive quantities of penguin meat. I was told it would be like a marathon runner trying to eat enough calories by picking strawberries along the way.

From our vantage point on the hill, we were able to watch the penguins in constant motion marching out to the sea and then marching back again. The males and females take turns sitting on the egg while the other goes to eat and groom. They can’t leave the egg alone for a minute because it will freeze, or worse, the skuas will dive in and grab it. Skuas are large, brown sea gull-like scavengers. They will grab an egg from a penguin, or steal a baby if a parent isn’t diligently watching. I saw a little adult penguin run after a large skua when it landed in the rookery. He won, too. I think the skua decided that it wasn’t worth the aggravation. The skua flew off to a different spot where I’m sure he hoped the penguins weren’t keeping such close watch.

We weren’t allowed in the ASMA area, but we were able to walk to the sea ice edge, and if a penguin decided to come up to us…well, it was okay. And they did! It was just amazing. They are so curious when they see the big red people that they come running over to check you out. If we were very quiet, or sat on the ice, they would come within just a few feet and let us take lots of pictures. A whale swam by, and unfortunately our quick glimpse didn’t allow us to identify the species for sure, but we think it was a minke. Minkes are the least threatened of the whale species in the Southern Ocean. We also had quite a show with a momma seal and her pup. The pup was insisting that she play with him, and like a good mom, she did!

A storm blew up quickly, and we decided we had better hike back to the hut before it got much worse. We weren’t ready to go in, but it would not be fun to be caught on the sea ice or in the high hills between the ocean and camp in whiteout conditions. I slept in Jean’s tent, and the guys bunked in a small shed. But, the next morning dawned with a brilliant blue sky and bright, beautiful light, and we knew we were in store for some better pictures than even the night before.

Again we hiked down to the sea ice and gingerly picked our way through the cracks. It is very slick and is beginning to change, so lots of caution was required. But the effort was well worth it. We saw emperors as well as adelies! And the adelies were very active swimming and jumping through the water and leaping up onto the ice and sliding like a fumbled football before stopping.

So I hope you enjoy these pictures. I will let them tell part of the story. It was an experience I will never forget, and I wish I could find the words to adequately describe the pictures I carry in my head!

Rainer. Louise, and Steve on the way back, stopped at Barn Glacier.

Pisten Bully pulling the divers' "tomato" hut. Thanks Amy, Rob and Addy for the ride! Thanks Steve and Rainer for sharing photos!

1 comment:

Grace D. said...

This sounds amazing, Mrs. Huffman! I wish that I could see penguins (other than at the zoo and aquarium). I still have the ambition of going to Antarctica through the IPY. I miss you a lot. Mrs. B. (I have no clue how to spell her last name) put up your pictures from Antarctica on a big bullitin board. It's amazing.