Our recent trip to Antarctica included the Falkland Islands and South Georgia Island – places that are remote and brimming with wildlife. I’m writing mainly about penguins, because I’ve just seen about a million of them!
There are 17 – 20 species of penguin depending on who you ask, ranging from Little penguins – so named because, well, they’re “little” – up to Emperor penguins, who stand a bit over a meter tall and weigh up to 45 kgs. Emperor penguins live on the other side of Antarctica, (over 1000kms away), so we didn’t see them, but King penguins come in a close second and we saw, quite possibly, over a million of them!
To a certain extent a penguin is a penguin, right? It evolved 70 million years ago, (so would have seen dinosaurs), they “swim” in the water with “flipper wings”, come onto land to breed and raise chicks. They aren’t too into nests – their feet plus a few stones or a grass lined hole seem to suffice. They must swim surprising distances of up to 100 km/day, to get food for their chicks.They eat fish, krill and squid. They are all confined to the Southern Hemisphere, with the exception of the Galapagos Island penguins, who, thanks to a favourable Humboldt current, arrived long ago and have lived there ever since.
Penguins live in all the countries abutting the Southern seas, (we’ve actually seen them in South Africa), but never made it to the Arctic, where puffins and auks are distant relatives.
Having no major land predators, they’re very laid back in our company, but at sea there’s predators aplenty, including leopard seals, sharks and orcas. Close to shore is where the major danger lies, so a rapid water exit, is important. They’re delightful to watch as they get up a head of steam, hydroplane on the ocean surface and either fly up onto the ice or at least into the safety of shallow water.
We had a long lecture about this, something about trapped air bubbles making them more hydrodynamic, but it was hard to grasp because the boat was listing alarmingly side to side on a stormy Drake passage and I was drifting in and out of a gravol-induced coma!
The experts know an awful lot about penguins, including their evolution, genetics, physiology, behaviour and current survival status – which is variable, not always gloomy and in fact many are doing very well.
Wikipedia has it all, but regardless of how academic one is, to see such huge numbers of penguins, as well as seals and other birds, in the enormous wilderness of the southern seas and Antarctica was truly awe inspiring and I’d like to share some of my photos.
Penguins are photogenic, looking like little old men waddling around and when I look at a photo, I often feel an urge to turn it into a cartoon.
TYPES OF PENGUINS
King penguins are second only to emperor penguins in size. They are often in colossal colonies. This one in South Georgia has 40,000 breeding pairs, plus chicks and young adults and it wasn’t the largest colony we saw! They are actually increasing in numbers globally.
Rockhopper penguins have a neat little two-legged hop that was incredibly cute, but hard to capture on camera. They live in burrows and are constantly grabbing pieces of grass to line their nests. They cohabit, quite amicably apparently, with black-browed albatrosses.
Macaroni penguins are another small penguin. They have vivid yellow tufts of feathers and look similar to the Rockhoppers but with a much more severe yellow tuft coming from their brow-lines. They stand around in these cute little groups having very intense conversations!
Both Rock-hoppers and Macaronis are decreasing in population unfortunately, probably due to decreased food supply.
We also saw a few Chin-strap penguins. Didn’t see any colonies, but apparently there are still millions of these guys around. They’re not in danger.
Gentoo penguins, together with Adelie penguins, (below) are common on the antarctic peninsula itself and they seem to be doing well. It’s hard to count animals in Antarctica, think about it, Antarctica is twice the size of Australia!
Antarctica is a long way from anywhere. Ushuaia in Argentina is 1100 kilometres from the Antarctic Peninsula and is the closest city by a long shot. Cape Town is 4000 km away. So land mammals never got there. The only mammals making landfall are the seals: leopard, crab-eater, Weddell, fur and elephant seals.
All the whales, seals and many penguins were decimated by commercial hunting in the 20th century.
Grytviken was the largest whaling station on South Georgia island and upon seeing it, we were amazed at the size. This was an industrial complex, where whales were dragged in, butchered and processed into oil, meat, bone-meal and more. It stank apparently. It finally closed because there were no more animals, a terrible example of human greed.
Thankfully, after whaling stopped in the mid 20th century, the wildlife has bounced back. Humpback whales are close to pre-hunting numbers, blue whales are returning and on South Georgia Island there were thousands of fur and elephant seals lying around in the ruins. I like to think of it as reclaiming their territory. By the way, it still stank, but this time it was due to a particularly large number of fur seals in musk, (or revved up hormonally for breeding!) and it smelled overwhelmingly “ferretish”.
Male fur seals land on a beach in the spring and promptly start fighting for territory. Fights are largely symbolic postures and struts, but they do have a nasty bite if you get too close. Having eyes in the back of your head is an asset! While the males strut their stuff, the smaller females and youngsters lie around relaxing.
Well, what can I say? The males are huge, up to 3,500kgs, spectacularly ugly and they fight constantly to establish a harem of much smaller, (up to 900kgs), females.
The fights are serious and there is blood, courtesy of two huge canine teeth! Fortunately, despite numerous lacerations, their skin and blubber is so thick that serious injury is rare.
But whenever we saw them, one or two were invariably bloody! Life is tough for an elephant seal!
After birth, the young elephant seals suckle furiously for 3 – 4 weeks, going from 40kgs up to 300kgs, at which point mom heads out to sea – “that’s it kid, you’re on your own.”
The pups lie around for a few months, until finally hunger plus instinct kicks in and off to sea they go. That folks, is elephant seal parenting 101.
At sea, elephant seals are deep diving specialists, going down to 1000 meters, (although the world record is 2,388 meters!), in search of fish and squid. They’ll stay down for 20 minutes at a time.
Interestingly, not much is known about their hunting techniques, simply because no human or diving vessel can get to these depths and chase them around!
For a final honorary mention, Weddell seals typically hang out on ice attached to the land, or “fast ice”. They gather in small groups, often around breathing holes and cracks in the ice. They’re seriously hardy, staying in Antarctica all year round and using the holes and cracks as shelter from the cold winds and blizzards.
Finally, it’s impossible to do the vast icy expanse of Antarctica justice. All I can do is show a few photos that impart a sense of scale.
This article written by Colin Rankin for TRDB.
Other blog posts you may find interesting:
Ushuaia Gateway to Antarctica