Kings of the subantarctic

DSCN1445South Georgia. I am finding my feet on the storm-ravaged pebbly beach, a king penguin separates itself from its companions and marches up to me. It clearly isn’t aware of the 5-metre rule that we humans must keep between us and the island’s residents. It also seems unfazed by my hazard-red polar jacket and assortment of camera gear around my neck. This gorgeous creature simply stands and casts its head to one side to look me up and down as if to say, ‘is it really you?’. I don’t know what to say, so we just stare at each other for a while, not speaking.

There is something almost human about them, or perhaps there is something almost penguin about us! I am reliably informed that there are 400 000 king penguins here, on this beach, spread out across an expanse of muddy ground in the lee of a snow-streaked mountain. The noise is unbelievable. As I wrote in Wild Sea:

The kings have no nests, so they must rely on sound, and the sound of 400 000 birds is surreal indeed. Each bird has two voices, a two-tone trumpeting call that, once heard, can never be forgotten. This distinctive vocal pattern helps them to identify their mate in the crowd when incubating or feeding chicks. In the noisy fraternity, communication is the key to survival. The cacophony of bellowing elephant seals, whining pups and trumpeting king penguins mingles with the sounds of the surf rolling on smooth black pebbles. It is like a wondrous choir that infiltrates the soul. The Antarctic historian Tom Griffiths wrote of the ‘changeover’ that occurs at the end of the Antarctic winter, when resupply ships finally breach the sea ice to reach the remote polar stations. I think that nature has its own version of changeover here, on South Georgia. (p. 55)

DSCN2310This subantarctic island sits squarely in the path of the Furious Fifties, 2000 kilometres south-east of Cape Horn and 4000 kilometres from the Antarctic Peninsula. Surrounded by the vastness of the Southern Ocean, this wild, remote island hosts one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Here I am, in the midst of it all, at the beginning of the Antarctic spring. In these parts, spring heralds a brief window of frenetic mating and birthing and raising young so that all might survive the long, dark winter months. Everywhere I look, there are pairs of adult penguins bowing to each other or promenading along the beach, often with one partner tenderly holding its flipper on the shoulder of the other. With luck, they will produce two eggs and share the task of incubating them. Only one will hatch, and they will care for them tenderly until they shed their brown downy feathers in the following season and have to fend for themselves. DSCN1404The fat year-old ‘chicks’, covered in light brown downy feathers,  are still being cared for by their doting parents. As I mentioned in an earlier post, early sailors christened them ‘oakum boys’ after the lads who used to pack the seams of wooden boats with oakum – a tarred fibre – to make them watertight. After a day’s work the boys would be coated in sticky oakum fibres.

DSCN2113I love the collective term for penguins – a group of penguins on land is known variously as a ‘waddle’ or a ‘huddle’. On sea they form a ‘raft’ of penguins, and this is where they soar. Standing at around a metre tall, the king penguin is second in height only to the emperor penguin. They have adapted wonderfully to these conditions, with no less than four layers of feathers. The outer feathers are oiled and water repellent, while the inner layers insulate them against the bitter wind and biting cold. They may breed on land, but the Southern Ocean is their true home and where they spend most of their time diving for krill, squid, fish and crustaceans. Their only land-based predators are human. Thankfully the era of extracting penguin oil for lamps or to feed the boilers to melt whale blubber is long gone (see Wild Sea, pp. 78). In the ocean, however, they are a favoured food for the Southern Ocean’s larger mammals, most notably the leopard seal and orca. At one point I am enthralled by a raft of king penguins swimming parallel to the beach, up and down, a tight-knit flock that manages to stay in the swell, just above the breaking surf. No one is sure why they are doing this. Perhaps they are just having a bit of exercise in their natural environment. Suddenly, I spy a leopard seal pursuing a king penguin. It has somehow become separated from the group and it is swimming for its life. From the safety of our zodiac, we all cheer when the penguin makes it safely onto shore, even as we pity the hungry leopard seal. Life and death may be devoid of emotion in these waters, but I see the plucky penguin give a little jump for joy when it finally sets foot on land.


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