Bowermaster’s Adventures — Live from Antarctica: part 6


Spied our first penguin chicks of the season today, on Petermann Island … fitting since it had been the home of both early explorers (Frenchman Charcot and his boat the Porquoi Pas camped here for two seasons one hundred years ago) and more recently researchers (the penguin counters from the Washington, D.C.-based Oceanites lived here in tents for five seasons, until 2008). The island is unique for the combination of breeding Gentoos and Adelies and blue-eyed shags, all living together, nest-to-nest, in a bird-world equivalent of very non-segregated housing.

The Adelies have been fleeing Petermann by more than ten percent a year and their numbers are down this year too, to just a few more than three hundred pairs … from five hundred a few seasons back. The Oceanites researchers predict they’ll all be gone from the island in another ten years. Why? Adelies love cold weather, and it simply isn’t staying cold enough, especially during the summer months. They love pack ice, and the sea isn’t staying frozen as long anymore. Meanwhile, the place is amuck with a booming population of Gentoos, a more temperate-loving bird, who are taking over the abandoned Adelies’ rock nests and booming in numbers.

Each season I ask my penguin-researching friends where they think the Adelies are off too and each season get a similar response: We’re not sure. It would be nice to think they’ve gotten the message that temperatures along the Peninsula are warming, are packing their bags and moving further south, where it’s colder. But that may be giving penguins too much credit. Some (many?) may simply be leaving here and not making it further south. It’s difficult to know because south of Petermann there are few scientists, very little regular monitoring. No one expects penguins to disappear from Antarctica — neither Adelie, Gentoo or Chinstrap, Emperor or King — but they are definitely on the move.

The chicks are about the size of a coffee cup, just two of them in the same nest. In the next week, ten days, the island will be covered with little squawkers. As I try to get a glance at the babies, I ask one of the researchers exactly how many penguins are on the continent. Same reply, No one really knows. Much of Antarctica is impossible to visit, so counting doesn’t take place. Aerial photographs don’t do the job. Estimates are there are about two-and-a-half-million Adelies alone; so let’s say there are somewhere upwards of five million of them scattered around.

The first penguin? It was a flightless bird of the Arctic sea, also known as the Great Auk, which was very similar to a penguin in anatomy, although from a different order of birds and was hunted to extinction in the 1600s. When later explorers discovered similar animals in the southern seas, they named them the same way. Penguin itself has muddy origins; it originally seemed to mean ‘fat one‘ in Spanish/Portuguese, and may come from either the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’ (white head), from the Latin ‘pinguis’ (fat) or from a corruption of ‘pin-wing’ (pinioned wings).

I spent most of the day on the island’s highpoint, hiking up through a slot in the granite hills to look south over a dark sea made more ominous by gathering storm clouds. Though it was cold, twenty-degrees with a gusting wind, and the skies grey I stood for several hours watching the ice move around the near sea, like a giant game of dominoes, the winds and currents faced off against each other, with no winner in sight.