I thought I’d just go down onto the ice for 10 minutes or so to wander about a bit, and bid the Commonwealth Bay fast ice farewell before we upped anchor late morning. Didn’t bother putting my big boots on – I wouldn’t be long.
Two and half hours later I had taken 270 photos, and was entranced. Walk, and Adelie’s walk with you. Stand in one place and eventually they will find you. This morning I didn’t have to wait for long. They come in ones and twos or as a group. Approach to check out this newcomer. Do I know you? Where are you from? What’s the fishing like there? Usual approach distance is a few metres before they realise that something is not right, and that they are approaching a rather strange penguin. This often still won’t stop them.
The more curious ones will come closer to check you out some more. They also stay engaged if you squawk back when squawked at, flap your flippers when flapped at.
Most of the time I just sat and observed, and photographed. Watching them follow other penguins, other people. Noting how they listen out for and watch penguins far off, on an ice floe across the water, seemingly wondering if they should cross over to join them, or encourage the others to join them. Noting how they preferred to dive into open water rather than the areas covered with the thin sheet of translucent ice that had formed overnight.
Their social behaviour reminded me of my chooks at home. If one chook is doing something interesting, the others are quick to scurry over. If one penguin dives into the water the flock follows, then they will all surface, black and glistening some seconds later, and like synchronised swimmers dive down again.
When you see one pop out of the water then you know others will follow – but randomly, and each one I appreciated with the wonderment and delight of a child. Some will land efficiently just above the bank edge, others are seemingly catapulted out of the water, projected like a cork out of a bottle of bubbly.
Lawrence Topham the Guardian photojournalist was near by most of the time, filming with his tripod. At one stage a large flock/ squad/ swarm/ herd/ gaggle flowed right around him, surrounding him. “That was cool” he said. “I love my job”.
I took photos of individual penguins, twos, threes, large groups, penguin circles of 8 -10 birds which look like they are deep in discussion and decision making. Close ups, and penguins in landscape, the calm, pale greys and blues of the sea and sky behind contrasting with the stark white ice. Penguins and the ship, penguins with people. I enjoyed seeing one get very close to Robbie, Chris Turney’s 12 year old son. Kid sized humans it seems are more likely to be considered as prospective penguins. After engaging with Robbie and checking out his boots, this penguin then went on to peck at the blue paint of the bow of the ship!
As the ship pulled out the penguins followed on the bank, seemingly bidding us farewell.
By the time I returned to the ship some of the second day Mawson’s hut travellers had resurfaced. They had arrived back at 5.30 this morning and crashed into bed after 24 hours on the go. I was particularly interested, given my morning, of hearing from ornithologist Kerry Jane Wilson who had succeeded in the task that she had set for herself and volunteer Estelle, of counting all the birds in the Cape Denison penguin rookery. Numbers it seems are down and the amount of failed breeding was stark. At this stage of the year penguins are sitting on eggs. There were many abandoned eggs, and of particular poignancy were the nests with both an abandoned egg and the frozen chick nearby from last year. The 60 kilometres of sea ice which had impacting on us getting to Cape Denison was having a more life and death impact on them, as the parent birds struggled to travel from the colony across the ice to open water. Others have reported how the usually purposeful tracks of the penguins, when there is the more usual shorter distance of sea ice to traverse is seemingly more aimless – as if they were just walking in circles, hoping to find a leader who would get them out of this mess of having to go too far across the ice to reach the food that they and their chicks needed to survive.
It’s possible that other rookeries around the continent are doing better than usual, and that it won’t be too long before the giant iceberg B09B which is the cause of the sea ice build up moves, and life will become much easier. But it’s been 3 years now, and each year despite the hardship the mostly habitual penguins largely return to the same rookery to breed. I can only wish these gorgeous creatures good luck.