Armchair Traveler: Marching With Penguins

penguins jumping off an iceberg into the ocean
Armchair Traveler: Marching with Penguins

By Evelyn Kelly, PhD 

Credit my fifth-grade teacher who told her eager students about the faraway land of Antarctica inhabited by strange animals called penguins. I thought to myself: someday I will see and even play with these birds that wear black tuxedos.

Don’t Chase the Birds

Many moons later, my daughter and I boarded a Norwegian Ice Cutter to visit the “The White Continent” and the penguins’ playground. The ship’s staff provided special boots to slosh through an antiseptic solution, so we would not leave any human germs behind in the penguins’ habitat. We then climbed onto special PolarCirkel boats heading for Half Moon Island with strict orders not to touch or chase the birds. 

Wow! Here we were trekking the cobbled beaches inhabited by a colony of chinstrap penguins with streaks of black feathers running from ear to ear. It was December 11, the beginning of summer in that place, and the colony was a flurry of activity. We marched along with one group as they waddled to the beach. Wings at 45-degree angles to their bodies and heads up in the air, they paid no attention to us, but moved with single purpose toward the water. As their torpedo-shaped bodies sailed into the depths, they now looked now like graceful ballerinas, dancing and twisting and jumping. This chowtime dance would fill their bellies with fish; squid; and krill, a shrimp lookalike. 

Penguin “Hooligans” and Skua Birds

Tired of marching, we moved to a rocky crag to observe the organized chaos of the colony. Interestingly, the birds were just like people. Some were busily gathering stones to make the nest for their brood that will come a month later. A few penguin hooligans stole the stones from the working birds’ nests when they weren’t looking. Others were just standing around, seemingly doing nothing. 

Perched ominously on the timbers of an abandoned building was a line of brown, evil-looking skua birds. Later, these birds of prey will pester penguins by stealing their eggs and grabbing their chicks. Today, they were looking for weaklings and older residents. As harsh as this sounds, predator/prey is a fact of life in a land where all is ice and there are only two species of flowering plants. 

Many Varieties of Penguins

Later, in different locations, we saw three of the 17 other kinds of penguins: gentoos, Adelie, and the burrowing Magellanic penguins. All were beautiful in their own ways.  

The penguins’ playground was full of unknowns, surprises and terrific memories. Best of all, we had encountered marvelous creatures whose lives, it turns out, are as complex and complicated as our own.