The other day I suggested that South Georgia was like some kind of Magic Kingdom envisioned by Disney. Today I’m revising that; it’s more like something old Walt might have created after a visit while ingesting heavily of magic mushrooms.
Late this afternoon I found myself crossing a wide, six-inch deep pond on St. Andrews ringed by a portion of the 300,000 King penguin colony that bases here, both adults and their several-month old chicks. Most of the chicks were molting, meaning their thick brown down was itching and beginning to fall off, leaving behind an exterior shell that made them look like some kind of “Cousin It” penguins … half-tuxedoed, half covered by wildly sprouting brown tufts of fur.
Everywhere I looked it is surreal. Tall mountains, peaks dipped in snow. Hanging glaciers (though definitely receding) separating the green valleys. Six-foot tall tussock grass running straight to the sea. A wide river of glacier melt running towards the sand beach, lined on each side by penguins, with sizable fur seals surfing and feeding in its fast-running center.
I’ve seen big wildlife gatherings in other parts of the world. Migrating caribou in Labrador. Herds of giraffe running along tongues of hardened lava in west Kenya. The most giant of penguin colonies in Antarctica. But nothing prepared me for both the size and oddity of this mass. The chicks, who unlike other penguin species, are born over a four or five month range and stay with their parent for up to thirteen months, follow mom or dad for all that time … everywhere.
The King lays a single egg and builds no nest, holding it on its feet under a fold of skin. Unlike the smaller penguin breeds, Kings occupy their rookeries all year and travel several hundred kilometers to find their food, mostly lantern fishes which they find at three hundred to one thousand feet below the surface.
Adult and chick march nearly lockstep, braying constantly, bumping into each other like some kind of Three Stooges act. Two weeks after they are born they are nearly the same size as their parents, two and a half feet tall. Imagine if humans birthed the same way, with a son or daughter the same height as his father when he is two weeks old.
As the sun lowers behind the ridge tops the pond brightens and the brown down of the chicks turns golden. It’s not quite as bright as the brilliant yellow-gold plumage of the adult’s neck and throat, but getting there.
There seems to be lots of wandering among the Kings. Unusual among penguins, they are not a vary fidel bunch. I sit for an hour and watch trios squabble, usually two females fighting over a male. They walk in threes, two of them fwapping their short wings at each other, like big city dilettantes on a crowded street. While most penguins, and albatross are faithful to a mate for life, among King’s the divorce rate is near 80 percent. Blame it on timing. When they arrive back at the island after months of feeding, their partner may still be months away. Given limited food reserves they cannot afford to wait faithfully for a late returning mate … so …