Life is a Penguin Highway

 

Below is a blog from Expedition Guide, Diane Erecg.  Diane is aboard the Sea Spirit, on Quark’s Crossing the Circle, Southern Expedition:

Looking out from the Sea Spirit towards landfall, the shorelines and slopes all around us look pristine and untouched. Everything is ice and snow-covered, the Transantarctic Mountains tower overhead, icebergs glisten in crystal clear water and silence hangs in the air. The Antarctic Peninsula appears spotless, deserted and empty. But as we approach closer to land another story begins to unfold.

Cruising at Neko Harbour

Zodiac cruising at Neko Harbour

Etched into the snowy slopes before us are long, deep trails. Some run vertically from sea to high rocky outcrops and others traverse the hillsides in a gentle meander. These trails, we learn, are penguin highways – busy thoroughfares used by penguins to transit from their nests to sea and back again. Through binoculars we see tiny black and white dots moving purposefully up and down these highways. Penguins!

Chinstrap Penguins

Chinstrap penguins

Soon we spot penguins in the water around the ship. They porpoise along the water’s surface, overtake us and continue on towards the shore where chicks eagerly await the return of a parent with a full belly of krill, fish or squid. The Antarctic summer is short and intense for those handsome birds. Over the course of few months from November to March they have much to accomplish, including courting, nesting and mating, incubation and hatching, fending and feeding and, finally, fledging and moulting. We prepare ourselves to get into the zodiacs and go ashore to meet them, to walk alongside their busy highways and to marvel at their curious behaviours.

Onshore, we follow flagged routes to the penguin colonies where ornithologist Liliana Keslinka tells us about their life cycle and helps us to interpret their behaviours. Each site we visit, from the Penola Strait, Paradise Bay and Port Lockroy right up to the South Shetland Islands reveals a different story about the humble penguin. And each species we encounter amuses us with its characteristic temperament. We each have our favourite penguin species amongst the easy-going Gentoos, aloof Adelies and feisty Chinstraps.

Gentoo feeding

Gentoo feeding

At some sites, we encounter small, fragile chicks that are guarded constantly by one parent while the other is foraging at sea. Brown skuas patrol the colonies relentlessly, waiting eagerly for a chance to pluck a chick from a distraught parent. Some of us root for the penguins’ survival while others secretly hope for a little drama and destruction.

At other sites, we find colonies that are much further advanced. Here, chicks are almost fully-fledged, ready to lose the last of their downy chick feathers and take to the sea, fully independent and exposed. They stand there at the shore unmoving and indifferent and we wonder what they might be thinking. Are they eager to experience their inaugural polar plunge or do they hesitate, afraid of the leopard seals that lurk in the shadows of these chilly waters.

Back on the ship in the late afternoon, relaxing, indulging and reflecting on yet another fantastic excursion, it occurs to some of us to look towards landfall once again. Through binoculars we see those tiny black and white dots still moving purposefully up and down those penguin highways. Here we are, changed into dry, warm clothing, soothed by velvety hot chocolate and welcomed home with warm hospitality. Out there they are, working night and day in the cold, wind and driving snow with little rest or protection.

Adelie penguin

Adelie penguin

How humbled we all feel by our encounter with this handsome and curious bird, which standing barely as high as our knees has earned our eternal respect and admiration.