A trip to the Antarctic will guarantee you see penguins. What it will not do is guarantee you see the ones you want. They may be some of the most successful birds on the planet, indeed the seventeen species stretch as far north as The Galapagos, South Africa and Australia, but like all wild animals when it comes to watching and observing they can be downright awkward.
These birds have evolved into the perfect fishing machine. White breasts ensure they blend with the ice and light from the surface when viewed by predators from below and a black back blends nicely in with the darkness of the deep from above.
Unlike their fellow birds penguins have solid bones and a double feather which helps keep them warm and distribute water away from the skin. They weren’t always this small either as fossils found in Antarctica reveal an ancestor that grew to six feet tall.
The area we explored consisted of the South Shetland Islands, the Weddell Sea and the north and west coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula as far south as Petermann Island some 65 degrees south. The three dominant species in this region belong to the genus Pygoscelis, namely Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adélie. They are given this genus classification as the pygo bone, in humans known as the coccyx, found at the base of the spine which in most birds is curved, is in these three species straight and the tail is an extension of this, thus giving them the nickname brushtails.
Even two foot of snow doesn’t stop the birds’ daily trek to the sea and penguin corridors or highways soon emerge through the snow looking for the entire world like tobogganing or bobsleigh routes from some winter Olympics. Indeed to some birds adopt this tobogganing posture by belly flopping towards the sea and it is certainly used as a faster method of travelling when needed.
Perhaps the most appealing of penguins are the six species that belong to the “Crested” family. There birds are all identified by the bright feathers growing from their heads. Some species are found uniquely in the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand such as those on Snape Island but the one known to most people is the ever restless Rockhopper, as its name implies doing exactly that.
Others names are not so easily established. We were very lucky to see a pair of Macaroni penguins mixed in a Chinstrap colony at Hannah Point but I’m not too sure they are named after a variety of pasta. In fact this penguin was named by the early English explorers as in the mid 18th century; a young man who wore flashy feathers in his hat was called a “Macaroni”. This also explains the last line of the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
These penguins build a crude nest by scraping a shallow hole in the mud or gravel among rocks. As with the Emperor the male cares for the newly hatched chick for 23 to 25 days while. The female brings food daily. In fact this species is the single largest consumer of marine prey among all seabirds. The pair we saw seemed to be continuously preening each other which may explain why wiht about 18 million individuals, the Macaroni is the most numerous penguin species.
Steve was a guest of Hurtigruten Cruises www.hurtigruten.co.uk