Imagine a place where human beings do not matter, a place where our physical presence was of no importance except perhaps a slight curiosity. This is the world I stepped into on Day 5 of our Antarctica expedition. As I walked just over a kilometer from our base tent to the colony on sea ice, I tried to take it in. I was walking on the Southern Ocean, technically the Weddell Sea. The land of Snow Hill Island was ahead of me, but I would not actually set foot on that land. This species of birds lived their whole life without stepping foot on terra firma, as they build their colony on sea ice in the winter and spring during breeding season and then live in the water during the summer months when the ice melts.
We had guidelines in place to protect these animals and the colony. Our path was set at least 30 meters away from the colony to give it space. If the penguins approached us, that was acceptable, but we were not to reach out and touch them. We were to move slowly and if a penguin came near, we were advised to get low and allow it to move around us. There was so much to see and observe. As I approached the colony, I saw another passenger kneeling to get a photo of a penguin that had walked up to him. I stopped with all my gear packed away and knelt down to watch. My patience and observation was rewarded as the penguin ambled over to me and came within two feet of me. I posted that picture taken with my iPhone here. As I got closer to the colony, I took out two camera setups-one I had intended for wildlife and one for landscape. I ended up using my telephoto lens for some landscape shots as well, as seen in the image below.
The light and scenery were spectacular. The light was not too harsh and the temperature was in the 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit range the first day. The colony was quite large and spanned a couple square kilometers. We visited one part of the colony on the first day and were given up to 9.5 hours at the colony. If we wanted to eat during the day, we had to walk back to the base tent to eat inside the tent to ensure no food particles were left on the sea ice. I skipped eating, as I did not want to leave the colony for one second.
As you can see in the image above and below, protruding from the sea ice were bluish icebergs that had been trapped by the sea as it froze. It added great texture for the landscape.
We found the birds in a variety of positions. They alternated between walking on their feet and sliding across the ice on their bellies. Since the temperature was quite warm for them, many laid down on their bellies to rest and cool down.
Occasionally we saw a gull or a skua fly overhead. These birds are one of the predators to the Emperors, the others being leopard seals and killer whales when the penguins are swimming in the sea. The gulls and skuas flew overhead looking for a young chick they could pick off. Luckily, I did not see them have any success.
It was hard to wrap my mind around the fact that human presence has not yet instilled fear or another permanent behavior change in this species. Despite having 120 humans walking around in bright yellow parkas photographing these birds, a single gull flying overhead sent the chicks running for cover with their parents. They knew the meaning of a flying bird. Although our immediate physical presence did not have that same meaning, I knew that we still have impacted these animals through global climate change and its impact on sea ice as I described here.
As the available sea ice has reduced over the years due to climate change, the colony has moved closer and closer to land. Scientists are studying these species and trying to learn more about their habits and lifestyle. There are many success stories in the conservation world and I hope that as we continue to learn more, we can take steps to minimize or reverse our direct and indirect impact on all species, including the Emperors.
You can view these images individually and more not posted here in my portfolio located here.