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Penguin Paradise

Penguin Paradise

Published: 12/15/2011 by Margy MacMillian

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Snow is falling lightly on this midsummer day. As my boat nears shore, the faint smell of ammonia grows stronger. Over the sound of the Zodiac’s engine I hear a chorus of nonstop staccato chirring and whistling. The black polka dots we saw from the water materialize as individual Adélie penguins – hundreds of them, thousands, tens of thousands – on the beach, the hillside and in the water now around the boat. I land and am surrounded by penguins on the move. Chattering penguins traveling solo or in cliques, some running with wings outstretched like happy five-year-olds, others walking more sedately or tobogganing on their white stomachs. Their bright eyes, ringed with white against the black head feathers give them an alert curious air, but none of them seem particularly interested in me; they have their own busy lives. 

Climbing higher, just off the beach I find the residential section of Paulet Island, off the northeastern tip of the Antarctica Peninsula. Thousands more penguins are here, adults guarding nests of fluffy grey two-week-old chicks. Interestingly, Adélie penguins raise their young farther south than any of the other 16 types of the bird. Here the sharp calls of the adults are mixed with the whistles from insatiably hungry youngsters. Each nest, containing one or two chicks, is just out of pecking distance from the neighbors. Older, wiser birds prefer the edges of a colony – whose size can range from 100 to 250000 pairs of penguins – where the commute to the ocean is often shorter, and relations with the neighbors are less intense.

To grow from tiny, fuzzy chicks (picture a grey cotton ball atop a tennis ball, with toothpicks for legs) to adults that stand about 60cm high takes a lot of food. Scientists estimate parents bring around 25 kilograms of food, in loads of around 500gm each to raise each chick – and the adults themselves only weigh around seven kilos. Parents forage for 24 to 96 hours at a time to find and bring back enough food, often swimming over 50 kilometres away from the nesting site. Feeding teenagers suddenly seems a whole lot easier!

I spent a long time sitting on a rock watching the Adélies go about their lives and thinking about their place and mine in the world. My commute is easier than my grandparents: theirs is harder. My local grocery store brings me produce from around the world; Adélies have to go farther each year to find food. The factors are complex. Climate change is warming the Antarctic waters and decreasing the amount of territory Adélies like best: sea ice punctuated by open water that provides the ideal conditions for these penguins and their prey. The krill and fish they feed on are also affected by the changing temperatures, and competition from other predators. These used to be whales and seals, but global human appetites for krill, used in everything from Omega-3 capsules to food for aquaculture, have reduced krill populations by some 40 per cent. These and other factors have led to a halving of the numbers of Adélie penguins compared to 30 years ago.                                       

But the news isn’t all bad. Researchers have found penguins aren’t as heaviliy reliant on a kill diet as originally thought. Growing awareness of climate change may lead to the changes we need to make to ensure the long term survival of the planet and all its inhabitants. And this particular penguin paradise on Paulet Island is still home to a thriving colony of Adélies, who are going about their noisy, busy lives in relative security, willing to overlook occasional intrusions of penguin-philes like me. 


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