If there is one thing that Antarctica has in clear abundance, well aside from ice, it has to be penguins. On the first day of my trip the expedition staff promised we’d be tired of seeing penguins by the end of the trip and while that never happened, I did see thousands of them during the week when I was on a trip courtesy of the adventure tour company Adventure Life. There are a few things you may not know about penguins though, facts that cute commercials and cartoons conveniently leave out.
1. Dirty and smelly – Everyone sees a picture of a cute penguin and their hearts usually melt instantly. And those pictures of adorable, clean penguins are spectacular, but sadly they are not entirely accurate. As I experienced firsthand in Antarctica, penguins are also incredibly dirty and very smelly. One of the best encounters I had with penguins during my Antarctica cruise was on Orne Island, home to a large colony of chinstrap penguins. Hiking up the icy hill I could hear them long before I could see them, their high pitched chirps echoing off the rocks. It was also summer in Antarctica, so there was a fair amount of mud resulting from melting snow. Except that it wasn’t all mud. As I got closer to the hundreds of penguins, the thick, brown mud got worse and worse until I was covered in it. Sure it’s mud as we know it, but it’s also a combination of penguin food and other bodily functions. This was further accentuated by the hundreds of filthy penguins everywhere. Instead of a white chest, most were brown with food they had been feeding to their chicks. Like most birds, the parents must fish for their food and then return in order to regurgitate it in the mouths of the hungry penguin babies. Apparently aim isn’t important, because the penguins were each covered in this recycled fish food. And then there was the smell. It’s impossible to describe, but I’ll never forget it mostly because it was nearly impossible to get it off of my clothes. That evening on the boat the faint odor of penguin wafted through the corridors as everyone tried to eradicate the sticky, penguin mud from their gear.
2. Mate for life – Many penguin species are monogamous and mate for life, although some may only mate for a season. How they communicate with each other is just as amazing, creating unique calls to identify themselves to their mates and chicks. This is vital given how large some penguin colonies can get. I don’t think I ever appreciated just how vocal penguins can be until I was able to spend some time with them. The noise is nearly constant with a combination of identification, display and threat calls. It was also interesting to see how the adults and chicks interact. When hungry the chicks chase the adults, essentially asking for some food. The adults don’t give in right away though and what follows is a strange dance around the rocks until finally, the adult gives in and feeds the chick.
3. Molting – When I was in Antarctica a number of penguins were undergoing the molting process, an important event in the lives of penguins. When penguins molt they do so all at once, making them look like exploding balls of fluff. It’s also a dangerous time for them though because while the feathers are coming in, they aren’t waterproof and so can’t enter the water to feed. Prior to the molt penguins will gorge themselves in order to survive this 2-3 week period. As visitors we had to be very careful of the molting penguins and weren’t allowed to get close for fear of scaring them. Every movement requires energy and since molting penguins have none to spare, scaring them would force them move unnecessarily. So instead we watched from a comfortable distance as these birds bundled up on the beach to wait for their new feathers to come in.
4. Penguin highway – When penguins nest on an island or rocky outcropping, they use the same paths to get to and from the sea. This is called the penguin highway. It some cases it can be a short trek but in many it is a steep climb up icy rocks. What’s amusing about the highway is the fact that every penguin takes the same path, quickly defining a system of roads to and from the water. Penguins aren’t always nimble though, and watching them fall and tumble only to get right back up was an extraordinary wildlife experience.
5. Damn cute in person – In spite of their messy appearance and smelly habits, penguins are still undeniably cute in person. Not unlike my experience in the Galapagos, I was able to get very close to them without causing a disturbance. The expedition guides were careful to tell us what areas were off limits but even with these restrictions I was able to sit and watch hundreds of them walk by me without a care in the world. It’s human nature to want to assign human-like emotions to animals, but watching the cute fluffy little birds interact with each other I couldn’t help but see love, concern and even annoyance throughout the colony. Penguins aren’t your average birds, and I think one reason why most people are so drawn to them is because of these emotive qualities. Sure fluffy babies are cute, but it’s even more adorable to watch an adult and baby interact, knowing that there is real love there.