Tag Archives: Adelie Penguin

The march of the penguins

Today we stepped ashore at Peterman Island which is the furthest south I have made it this summer. The island was fringed by drifts of pack ice through which penguins porpoised on their way to land. The interesting thing to note was which penguins were swimming by as we battled through the ice to make the shore. On the island there are over 3000 pairs of Gentoo Penguins, and around 500 pairs of Adelie Penguins. But these number are shifting at a rate equivalent to the ice flowing past the rocky shores on which they nest.

It seems that on this particular island we are witnessing a shift from a system, dominated by Adelie’s towards a system dominated by Gentoo penguins, and each year the proportion of Gentoo’s increases and the Adelie’s declines. Bear in mind that this is the furthest South that Gentoo penguins are known to breed. The shift seems very much like the staging point for a southward invasion of Gentoo’s … and the reason? Well it has everything to do with climate.

The Antarctic Peninsula is experiencing a significant increase in average temperature .. not enough to be appreciable to the casual visitor, but certainly enough to affect the yearly extent of sea ice .. but certainly not enough to bother a penguin surely? Well, the answer is found in the explosive emissions from a penguin’s rear end. As one watched these spectacular spurts one notices that rather than the rich red colour that transpired from a full belly of krill, many of the penguins on the island are shooting spouts of white. White, as it turns out, shows that the penguins are eating squid or fish, rather than the krill which represent the mainstay of the Antarctic food web.

So what is happening? It seems that the prey that penguins feed upon are much more susceptible to  temperature changes than the penguins themselves and as fish species thrive is slightly warmer temperatures while krill struggle in the face of disappearing sea ice, the penguins are finding the menu a little different from the norm. It seems Gentoo’s are pretty eclectic in their diet while Adelie’s have a penchant for krill, krill and more krill.

In the face of this culinary shift we are now witnessing the triumph of the junk food diet over that of the fussy feeder … sound familiar? Well watch this space!

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Contrasts and Carnage

Today we spent the day in the Antarctic Sound with a spectacular sunrise heralding a clear morning that seemed to erase the memory of the furious winds we were battling yesterday. The crisp brown rocks of Brown Bluff stood starkly on a field of white snow and glaciers and beckoned us to touch ground again finally after three days at sea with wind and waves preventing us from reaching any landings.

Once onshore, we were greeted by hordes of Adelie penguins with a good number of Gentoo penguins thrown in for good measure. After walking around the colony for a few minutes we were greeted with the sight of the first chicks of the season. Of course everyone love the cute chicks peeking out from the nests and receiving their regular dose of regurgitated krill from their parents …but even more exciting is the fact that we were seeing the next generation of leopard seal food!

Prowling around the beach were at least three leopard seals waiting for the chance to pounce on an unwary penguin. One study has shown that just two leopard seals can consume as many as 15.000 penguins over a 15 month period! At Brown bluff we saw these statistics heading toward fruition with at least two separate penguin kills observed – watching a seal thrashing a penguin on the surface to remove the delicate flesh from the unpalatable skin and feathers is not everyone’s cup of tea but it is certainly thrilling to watch the drama of life in Antarctica play out to the ultimate (and bloody) end. Even more surprising was the chance to watch a full grown leopard seal devour a young weddell seal that was about half the length of the predator. More carnage again but the feast was attended by clouds of cape petrels and Wilson’s storm petrels picking up the scraps –  the ecological system here is all interconnected and while one feels compelled to barrack for the underdog, the penguins are certainly a serious part of the life cycle of all the other animals that make up the system.

A glorious morning onshore was followed by raising winds and swell that drove us out of any further landings, but after several hours on shore watching nature in its most raw form there were no complaints from anyone. It’s a land of contrasts and occasional carnage but one thing is certain – Antarctica never fails to deliver excitement!

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Antarctic Sound

Just five minutes ago I was on the foredeck of the Akademic Ioffe watching two humpback whales slowly cross the bow of the ship against an incredible sunset with icebergs dancing on the horizon still catching the last rays of the sun. A spectacular evening in the Antarctic Sound. To turn back the clock to the other end of the day, we woke this morning drifting off Paulet Island which is home to between 60-100.000 pairs of Adelie Penguins. A bit of an uncertain figure since the penguins in this region have been declining lately, but regardless of a downward trajectory in the population, the beach and island is certainly a surging mass of penguins all busily going to and fro from the sea to feed their half grown chicks which add to the loud chorus of a penguin colony. Beside the penguins is a large colony of Blue Eye Shag which add their own distinctive brand of noise and also their own odour to assault the nose… this many birds in a small space certainly has its own distinctive aroma. The morning excursion was followed up by a zodiac cruise amidst icebergs where three species of seal where spotted as well as a lot more penguins and the elusive snow petrels wheeling amidst the towering bergs. But of course the highlight of the day was hamburgers for lunch. Not often we get hamburgers aboard…

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24 November 2010

Woke at the crack of dawn.. but dawn is less of a crack and more of a gaping chasm here in Antarctica and lasts for hours …despite this I caught at least the first half of dawn when I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 to jump in a small rubber boat to charge around icebergs. Minutes later I’m hanging from a crane 25m above the water and descending into the cold ice waters with seals, penguins and whales on my mind.

The first stop was Orne Harbour where I cruised past chinstrap penguins and leopard seal…then a quick dash up to Cuverville Island to see the largest Adelie penguin colony on the Antarctic Peninsula, and finally a landing and hike at Neko Harbour. The last is a particular favorite of mine with a churning glacier descending into a tranquil Bay populated by Gentoo penguins. The Glacier is fast and furious …by glacial standards, and drops icebergs frequently. Today a HUGE carving happened that sent a wave right up over the beach. I was onshore and though I avoided the worst we lost a bit of gear and I spent the rest of the landing wet up to my waist. Still …a great landing. I blazed the trail for the long walk up to

the ridge and then to the next bay where there were about seven Weddel seal asleep. I managed top get 20 minutes sitting alone on the beach listening to the Weddels sing in thier sleep accompanied by the trumpetting of Gentoo penguins.

A beautiful place to be working.

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