Compiled by Coline Marciau, a member of WWF’s penguin adoption team and the Dumont D’Urville research team in Terre Adélie.
Catch up with the amazing colony of emperor penguins as they return to their icy breeding ground.
Seeing these tall, majestic penguins march across the sea ice and gather near our research station in Terre Adélie is always exciting. There are around 8,000 emperor penguins in the colony, and, as they arrive, they sing to find their partners. Most penguins couple up within an hour, but this time one poor female sang her heart out for almost a week before she found her mate. Perhaps he was a little hard of hearing!
Unlike Adélie and other penguin species, emperors don’t make nests. Instead, the parents take turns incubating their precious eggs by balancing them on their feet and snuggling them under special pouches on their bellies. Because there are no nests, the penguins often move position as the breeding season progresses. At one point, they came so close to the research station that we could see them from our living room. Some curious individuals even came to take a peek at us.
We counted the colony each month by taking photos, then painstakingly studying the images and clicking on our computers to tot up every penguin we saw. Imagine making all those thousands of clicks inside a warm lab while the temperature outside is below freezing. Is there anything better in life? Okay, there may be – but this is a really nice part of our job!
Once they’d transferred their eggs, the females went off to feed, leaving the males in charge until the chicks hatched around 65–75 days later. This first feeding trip is the longest of the whole breeding season, and the faster the females can reach open water, the better, as this helps reduce the time they are away.
Fortunately, a polynya (an area of open water in the sea ice) appeared just 20 kilometres from the colony, making for speedy feeding trips this breeding season. Male penguins do have a built-in safety measure though, in case the chick hatches before the mother returns. If this happens, the males feed the chicks a milk-like substance (produced by a gland in their oesophagus) composed of 59% protein and 28% fat. Only three birds in the world produce this – emperor penguins, pigeons and flamingos.
As the breeding season progressed, the chicks started hatching and began peeking at the outside world from their parents’ protective brood pouches. Some chicks even wandered away, taking their first unsteady steps on the ice – a bit like human babies learning to walk. They didn’t stray too far though, and soon returned to resume their favourite activity – demanding food.
Penguin chicks let their parents know they’re hungry by making high-pitched chirps and upward head movements. Eventually, they grow too big to fit under the brood pouch, but some chicks have difficulty accepting this. It’s not unusual to see them half-covered by their parent’s bellies with their bottoms sticking out!
Monitoring penguins against threats such as climate change is a privilege. But it has some unique challenges.
The Antarctic weather can be extremely harsh, with strong winds of up to 199.5km/h that can blow away our monitoring equipment. The wind can also cover everything in snow, to the point where digging out our equipment has become part of everyday life.
At one point, the layer of snow over my equipment was two metres high and so dense that the combined weight created cracks in the sea ice – forcing water up and flooding the electrics. That was a terrible day. On another occasion, I was carrying a heavy battery to an antenna set up to detect passing penguins. Although the antenna was only 10 metres away, I kept slipping on the snow and had to crawl on my hands and knees most of the way. Such are the challenges of monitoring penguins. Yet spending time with these amazing birds makes everything worthwhile.
Antarctica is truly a unique place on our planet, and it’s our responsibility to protect this sensitive ecosystem that is already under extreme pressure.
At the end of last year, we gladly received the news that the Australian Federal Government decided to ground the plans for an airport in the heart of East Antarctica. A huge relief to us all as the proposed airport could have had disastrous environmental impacts.