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Expedition Antarctica: Penguins, Finally!

By Christine Dell’Amore

Christine Dell’Amore is participating in a National Science Foundation media trip to report on scientists conducting polar research near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Going to Antarctica and not seeing penguins is, at least to me, akin to visiting Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower. Of course, visiting a penguin colony is not easy as taking the metro downtown–even if you’re living at McMurdo. The most accessible option is a helicopter ride to an Adélie penguin rookery on Cape Royds, not far from McMurdo and on the western side of Ross Island.

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Helmeted and ready for our helicopter ride

We’d been thwarted by weather for two days, and by Friday night I’d accepted that I wouldn’t see these funny birds in the feather. But, at 5 a.m. Saturday–my departure day–I peeked outside and was thrilled to see a clear day breaking. By 8:30 a.m., our group–including penguin scientist David Ainley–were already airborne in a helicopter toward Cape Royds. We first made a stop on the ice near the Swedish icebreaker and research vessel Oden to drop off Björn Dahlbäck, general director of the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.

Touching down on the ice near the Oden was a sensory bonanza, with the sound of the whipping blades and the sight of the 25,000-horsepower vessel pulverizing the ice, whitewater rapids churning at its aft.

 

Watch a video of us landing near Oden

 

We took off again and landed not far from Ainley’s research site, the southernmost rookery of Adélies, where we had a permit to get relatively close to the penguins–although of course not touch or disturb them.

Ainley walked us across a rocky landscape that reminded me of crushed Oreos. As we got closer to the colony, I heard a low jabbering, and then the acrid smell of lots and lots of penguin poop hit me. Hundreds of birds stood in tight clusters along a slope, while others scooted on their bellies downhill to the sea.

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An unusually clear view of Mount Erebus and the Adélies

I plopped myself down a safe distance from the squabbling birds, agape at the unusually clear Mount Erebus glittering in the distance. Some of the birds approached me curiously with cocked heads, flapping their little wings. I particularly enjoyed watching one that would pick up a rock in his beak, waddle over to another nesting penguin, and add the rock to the nest. Ainley later told me these were teenaged birds play-acting the roles of adults.

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Adélies regurgitate food for their young

All of the babies had hatched for the season and were already big, fuzzy gray balls that are fiercely protected by their parents. Predatory skuas–a type of seagull also known for snatching people’s food at McMurdo–are always overhead and looking for a snack.

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The babies’ feathers are dark to absorb more heat

The colony has about 1,800 breeding pairs, and it’s in the part of Antarctica where Adélie populations are actually growing. That’s because warming temperatures and more powerful winds are breaking apart the sea ice, giving penguins the advantage of swimming instead of walking to get their food, according to Ainley’s website Penguin Science.

But in northern Antarctica, warming has prevented sea ice from forming and is moving some populations of the birds south. (See National Geographic News’s 2007 story about Adélies and climate change.) Eventually we had to get back on the helicopter, and as I walked back a penguin followed me part of the way like a puppy.

See a video of the penguin “puppy”

Our next stop was Cape Evans to see Captain Scott’s Terra Nova hut, built in 1911 as part of the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. The men reached the pole on January 17, 1912–though Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them by a month.

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The Terra Nova hut was a base for 25 explorers

To make matters worse, the men died on the return trip–within a day’s trek of a depot. Under restoration by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the hut is more sophisticated than Scott’s Discovery hut, and had all manner of scientific instruments, food supplies, and other knick-knacks the men had used. For instance we saw piles of seal blubber burned as oil, as well as a pile of dead Emperor penguins kept as food (thanks to the cold, nothing decays in Antarctica).

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Some of the instruments preserved inside

Before long the helicopter beckoned and we were hurtling over the snowy expanse back to McMurdo. As I gathered my bags for my flight back to Christchurch, I thought about what Raytheon’s Tom Ellis had told me early on in our adventure. “Everyone has their Antarctic moment,” he’d said, when you’re “overwhelmed with immense beauty and awe.” I’d had many of such moments, from standing on the geographic South Pole to sitting near penguins in the shadow of a volcano to simply looking out my bedroom window. I hope that someday I’ll be back on the ice.

 

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Parting shot

 

Photos by Christine Dell’Amore

 

Christine Dell’Amore is the environment writer/editor for National Geographic News.