She turns her head to get a real good look at me, glinting black eyes peering into mine. She then approaches, each step an awkward shuffle, revealing a white shiny belly against the sheen of her black body, a flash of brilliant pink along her sharp beak.
She takes another step, peers closer, seemingly overtaken with pure curiosity, taking in my bright orange coat, big boots, funny hat, and the huge orange monstrosity of a vessel behind me. She vocalizes and the others around her join in the chorus, engulfing me in a brash but melodic cacophony of calls. I realize I’ve been holding my breath and force myself to exhale.
We continue our exchange for a moment more, and then she dismisses me, seemingly bored already, turns away, drops to her belly and slides swiftly off on the icy ground, toes and wingtips propelling her forward. A dozen birds follow her into the snowy dusk.
We crushed our way into the fast ice at Cape Colbeck in search of Emperor penguins (see photos), but we didn’t need to search: they came to us. Within an hour of arriving, a small group of birds approached the ship, intensely curious about the huge steel intruder. Once we stepped off the boat, they approached us, not with caution, but inquisitively. While in the water they fall prey to leopard seals and killer whales.
Up here on the ice, they have no predators and thus no reason to fear us. They’ve likely never interacted with people before, and unlike so much of the world’s wildlife, they’ve never suffered at our hand.
Emperors are the largest of all penguin species, standing three feet upright and weighing as much as 90 pounds. They are strong and magnificent birds. As the best avian divers in the world, they can plunge deeper than 1,500 feet (457 meters) below the surface and stay down for more than 20 minutes. But they are perhaps most famous for enduring the long Antarctic winter on behalf of the next generation.
While most Antarctic birds and mammals head north for the long winter, Emperors head south to breed. By next month, the birds will begin their long inland march, traveling as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) to gather in breeding colonies deep in the fast ice. There, the birds mate, then huddle together to fight the cold as temperatures drop to -40°F (-40°C) and winter winds scream over 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour).
By June, each female lays an egg, which she transfers to her mate before retreating to open water in search of food. At this point, she likely hasn’t eaten in two months. She feasts on krill, fish, and squid, but also stores some of the food in her bolus to feed her newly hatched chick. Once she returns, she stays with the chick as her mate, who has not eaten in almost four months, hastens to open water to feed.
The parents travel back and forth between the colony and open water until December when the chick departs the colony for its first venture into the sea. The parents must then fast again as they molt, standing on the ice for up to a month as new feathers replace the old.
Our penguin science team brought us out to Cape Colbeck, one of seven Emperor penguin colonies in the Ross Sea, to put satellite tags on birds that will track their movements over the course of the next year. These tags transmit data about the penguins’ travels and diving behavior, revealing key foraging areas as well as information about when exactly they return to their colonies to breed. Their work builds on decades of research on Emperor penguins in the Ross Sea.
A quarter of the world’s Emperor penguins live in the Ross Sea, a region long protected by distance and ice. The Ross Sea remains one of the last places on Earth that is undamaged by humans – there is no wide-spread pollution, no dead zones or plastic patches, no invasive species and, until recently, no large-scale fishing. Most incredibly, the Ross Sea still has near-virgin abundances of all its top predators. It remains a place where visitors enjoy intimacy with wildlife that does not flee in fear.
In recognition of the incredible scientific and ecological value of this region, the nations that govern the Southern Ocean have identified the Ross Sea as a critical area for marine protection. In the coming year, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to see this protection through. In doing so, we can ensure that there will be at least one great oceanic wilderness set aside where Emperor penguins and other members of their ecosystem can continue to thrive.