The closest penguin colony was about 1.5 kilometers away (and the others were only a couple of hundred meters away from that), so it was just a 15 minute walk to get there.
This was convenient, since on most days we walked there about three times a day.
A typical day was something like: breakfast about 8-9 am, then off to the penguin colonies for three hours, with lunch about noon. Then off to the penguin colonies for another three or four hours. Dinner around 8-9 pm and then off to the penguins for the main photo session of the day. (I usually got back to my tent about 1 am, but when I went outside around 3 or 4 am, I did often see other people just coming back to camp...)
Since there is not much to say about photographing penguins, here's just a bunch of pictures:
(Think up your own subtitles if you like. I'm willing to take suggestions...)
Someday, kid, all this will be yours
While I don't have a precise count, there were about 5000-7000 emperor penguins there. The larger groups were about 2500 animals, with two smaller groups of roughly a thousand animals.
And while these were Emperor Penguin colonies, there were one or two oddities. (We think we spotted two of them, but since the penguins move around, it might have been the same bird.)
Notice anything odd in this picture?
Somewhere amongst the Emperor Penguins was an Adélie Penguin.
While Adélie Penguins are, beside the Emperor Penguins, the only species of penguin that breeds in Antarctica, they built rock nests, so it was unlikely that this one was breeding out here. Most likely it's just a non-breeding bird that got bored and decided to spend time with the Emperor Penguins instead. A bit of a social climber that likes to hang around with royalty.
Time to head back to camp and get some sleep.
Next morning some clouds had rolled in and the sky had turned grey. Ground visibility was still good though, it hadn't gotten any colder and while there was some wind, it wasn't much. So no reason not to go out and take more penguin pictures (even though they look a bit gloomier than the previous ones).
As a safety measure, in case bad visibility due to a snowstorm or incoming fog, Eric had marked the way to the penguin colonies with a line of flags, each about 20 meters apart.
If the camp was no longer visible, it would be possible to get to it by following the flags. And, in case of a really serious snow storm, where you couldn't even see 20 meters ahead, it would be best to stay at one of the flags, so a rescue group had a good chance of finding you. Everyone who had a GPS also had the ends of the flag line marked, so that it would be possible to follow the line, even in a total whiteout.
We didn't need the flags (visibility was constantly good), but it's a good idea to be prepared.
So here are some 'not quite as sunny' pictures:
As might be deduced from the next two pictures, it wasn't too cold. Most of the time the temperature was between -10°C and -18°C (about 15°F to 0°F), though wind and sunshine are more relvant on whether it feels warm or cold than the air temperature.
For adult penguins, this is fairly warm, but when some wind came up, some of the young ones started to form a huddle (also called crèche).
Though, ultimately, looking at the photographer and posing turned out to be more interesting.
Overcast skies also provide the right mood for more depressing pictures.
Not all of the penguin chicks make it through their first summer. In fact, most of them don't. Normally, roughly 80% die during their first year. (This is a reasonable number. Penguins are fairly long lived and once they made it through their first year, they are likely to make it to old age. So (as a ballpark figure), if they are capable of breeding for 17 years (ages 3 to 20) and 88% of the offspring dies before breeding age, there's still two breeding descendents per breeding pair, so the population stays constant.)
It's still a bit depressing to see the reality of this on the ice.
And just to keep the gloomy bits together in one place: According to Dick Filby (the birds expert), this looked like a particularly bad year. A lot of the chicks were much too small for the time of year.
At this time of year, a young penguin should be about half the height of a grown penguin and pretty much be shaped like a bean bag, like this:
So any penguin still living on their parents' feet (like the one shown middle-left in the next picture) has no chance of surviving.
But even mid-sized chicks (like the one on the right in the next picture) are likely not to make it.
A possible reason why this was a bad year was somewhat counter-intuitive: Stable ice.
Emperor Penguins like to have their rookery on stable, non-moving multi-year (preferable multi-decade) ice. The simple reason: If their bit of ice breaks off the ice shelf and floats away, their partners won't be able to find them and feed the chicks, so the whole year is lost as far as breeding is concerned.
To find some stable ice, they move away from the open water. So if some of the ice near the open water breaks off, they are still safe. But if the ice near the open water stays stable and doesn't break off, it's a long way to walk to the colony. We didn't see any open water when we were there and also hadn't seen any from the plane while approaching. Sometimes we did some low dark fog clouds on the horizon in one direction (an indicator of open water), but we estimated that these were at least 30 kilometers away. So in this case good ice means long distance (and time) to reach and return from the feeding grounds, resulting in less food for the chicks. (At least according to one explanation.)
Another indicator of a bad year was the near-absence of skuas. While skuas aren't dangerous to adult penguins and don't even worry chicks, unless these are very young, their strategy of getting some food from penguins consists of interrupting the feeding process.
When a penguin returns from the sea, it will regurgitate the half-digested fish from their stomach to feed the young ones. The skua then tries to harass the penguins during the feeding process to make them spill some of the food and eat it afterwards. But if not much feeding is going on, a penguin colony isn't of much interest to skuas.
We did see two or three skuas flying over the colony, but none of them stayed for any length of time and soon left.
Dead penguins? Regurgitated food? Since this is the 'not so pleasant' part of the text, there's something else that fits here: Penguin droppings.
Luckily it freezes quickly and the nose doesn't work well at low temperatures anyway. Since it's best to photograph penguins at (their) eye level or below, I did spend a significant time kneeling or lying on the snow, so it's best not to think too much about what you are lying in.
If you ignore what it is, there are actually some nice patterns to it, which could be enlarged, framed and put on the wall as abstract art...
While, obviously, most of the birds were Emperor Penguins, we also spotted an Adélie Penguin, a snow petrel (don't have a picture of that one, though), a skua and also this bird, which, as far as I remember, is some kind of petrel, so I'm not sure which one.
Weather changes quickly there and, luckily, it changed for the better the next day. All blue skies and sun again.
I had also improved my photo taking method a bit. Not that I got better pictures, but it was a more relaxed way of taking it.
The first two days I had just carried my camera in a shoulder bag. There were pulkas (little plastic sleds to pull along) for everyone, but since I didn't carry that much gear, I didn't use it at first. But since the weather was nice, warm and sunny and the heavy boots were, well, heavy, I wanted to try wearing 'normal' shoes instead for easier walking. But since I wasn't quite sure whether this would work and, in case of bad weather or freezing feet, the distance to the penguins was to large to 'just try it', I decided to take a pulka with me to pull the polar boots along, just in case.
I then found out that, instead of kneeling or lying on the snow, it was much easier to pull the pulka close to the penguin colony, lie down on the pulka, just relax for five minutes in the sun and then slowly turn my head and see whether any photogenic penguins had come close.
The lazy way of photographing penguins.
As the fifth and last bird species I saw in Antarctica, a skua was flying over the penguins. It didn't stay long however, but just flew over the colony once or twice and then flew away again. While some if the penguins gave it a cursory glance, they didn't seem overly concerned.
Presumably the skua hadn't seen what I saw, namely some feeding going on...
Later that day the weather was still sunny and a Twin Otter came in, bringing the replacement parts for the DC-3.
It also meant a change in the camp. The Twin Otter brought a new arrival, Irina, originally from Russia, but now living in London, and departed with the other two Russians and Jolanda.
This might need some explanation. Originally there were two Emperor Penguin tours in consecutive weeks. The both being planned as Wednesday - Wednesday tours (from/to Punta Arenas) with (more or less) Thursday-Tuesday with the penguins (and the other days in Union Glacier).
At least roughly. All plans in Antarctica are approximate.
Since our incoming flight had been delayed, we arrived at the penguins on a Monday. So staying just until Tuesday would have been a bit short. (As Dick put it "You don't purchase dates, you purchase duration.") But since Irina came to Antarctica on schedule (actually early, since she was in Antarctica with her husband, who was on a serious expedition to the pole), she was flown in on Wednesday, leaving the others with the option of flying back with the Twin Otter (and being more or less back in Punta Arenas on the normal schedule). Or staying until the next plane was taking passengers out.
I had booked both tours, so I would be staying anyway.
The Russian couple decided to head back to Punta Arenas. They had things scheduled after the trip and wanted to get back on track. While they had just spent two days with the penguins, one of them being overcast, they had also about 24 hours of bright sunshine with the penguins, which is sufficient for lots of good pictures. So they decided to leave, so they would be back in Punta Arenas just one day later than expected - a good decision in retrospect, since the next flight out was four days later.
The Chinese group decided that they hadn't even remotely taken enough pictures in the two days and wanted to stay at least their full duration, so they remained there.
Later that afternoon, the whole group decided to forego the penguins and take a trip around the iceberg that was next to the camp.
Eric and I had taken a tour around the iceberg the previous day. (As I mentioned at the beginning, my main purpose for going on there was to enjoy the Antarctic landscape, with the penguins thrown in as a bonus, so I really jumped the chance of doing something else but taking pictures of penguins.) The rest of the group went to the penguins instead. Which, if you go at it with a photographic mindset, is the sensible thing to do. With diffuse light, an iceberg looks just bland and dull.
But with bright sunshine and the iceberg glittering in the sun, the trip around it was too beautiful to resist. And afternoon wasn't the perfect time for penguin pictures anyway, so that could wait until the after-dinner session.
While we were out, the crew had built a snow wall as protection from the wind and started to repair the airplane.
Then the repairs were done and it was time to say good-by to the flight crew and watch the plane leave.
(Btw, there was a reason why the three that had gone back to Union Glacier went with the Twin Otter and didn't wait for the DC-3 to be repaired. Since this was a field repair, the plane wasn't officially flightworthy and could not take passengers until it was certified again. Which only could be done back at Union Glacier.)
Once the plane, providing a big visual landmark, had gone, the camp looked a lot smaller and forsaken, increasing the 'out in the middle of nowhere' feeling. (Since the camp was on the sea ice, there weren't any science stations in the area - they most of them are on solid ground at the coast - so the nearest 'human habitation' was probably the camp at Union Glacier, about 700 km away.)
But while there weren't many humans around, there were a lot of penguins nearby, so it was time to visit them again.
The next day was overcast again, so the next couple of pictures are a bit more greyish.
While Emperor Penguins are usually very relaxed (unlike other penguins, they are non-territorial), there was one fight between chicks, where one of them started to hack with its beak at the other and quite aggressively pushed it away.
I also had started to play around a bit more with the cameras (copying the idea from Eric) and set up the two pocket cameras on the pulka (didn't bring a working tripod - well, I did bring a cheap tripod, but that got broken) taking a picture every couple of seconds to create a short lapse videos.
The results weren't overly exciting (as can be seen on the picture above, one of the camera wasn't
even properly parallel to the ground), but here they are anyway:
Both clips are roughly 8 MB each and about 40 seconds long.
While it might look like sunset in the next pictures, this is just an effect brought by the low cloud cover and the clearer sky at the horizon (and some snow crystals in the air in the far distance, reflecting the light). The actual sun is out of frame above the pictures.
With quickly changing weather, next day was bright and sunny again.
It's a great feeling to open up the tent flap in the morning and be greeted by a sight like this:
While I was taking pictures, one of the penguins waddled over to see what I was doing.
Its a gorgeous place to wake up to.
The 'tour of the day' was a visit to the other iceberg. Our camp was right next to one iceberg, but there was another one nearby (a slightly more than a kilometer away) and it seemed like a good idea to take a look at it. So Eric, Irina and me put on some skis and went on our way. (The rest decided to go and take some more photographs of penguins - birders indeed!)
The iceberg was really beautiful in the sun.
It also had a really great cave at on side, shining in multiple levels of blue and going deep into the iceberg. I was very, very tempted to go into it and have a look, but that wouldn't have been a good idea, especially not without proper equipment (like ropes and spikes).
But while I couldn't go into the iceberg, I was surprised that Eric suggested to go on top of it.
We went slowly, with Eric checking every couple of meters for crevasses. Luckily there were just small ones (about ten centimeters across), over which we could step easily, but looking down the holes that Eric made with his ski pole, they went deep down into the iceberg, so it would have been really bad falling into a wider one.
But finally we were at the edge, with nice views of the camp and the surroundings.
While standing on an iceberg is inherently great, there were other reasons for gaining higher ground. To look for more penguins and for the sea. While we didn't see any open water, we spotted a small of penguins about 3 km away. (We went to visit them the next day, but it turned out to be, basically, just a rest stop on the (presumed) way to the sea. There were less than a hundred penguins and no chicks. Penguins were arriving from and leaving to two directions without the 'greeting calls' they use at colonies. It seems just like a random place where some penguins had once stopped and now penguins stop there just because other penguins are there as well. And then move on.)
We also spotted another iceberg, which looked like it would be interesting to visit, since it looked like a 'typical' Antarctic iceberg. Northern icebergs usually break off from glaciers, so they tend to have a more 'broken', random shape. In Antarctica, they often break off from the shelf ice, which is flat and even, so you get these flat, tabular icebergs.
We tried to go towards the iceberg the next day as well (it was roughly the same direction as the small group of penguins), but when it wasn't getting any larger after 4 km (with the iceberg behind us having shrunk significantly), we estimated that is was probably at least 15 km away and out of reach for a little afternoon walk. There was some talk about making a two day trip out of it (three of us packing the tents and some food, going to the iceberg, spending the night there and returning the following day), but since we left two days later, we never got to doing it.
On trips like this, it's easy to forget how extraordinary strange the things you do are. 'Hanging around' with Emperor Penguins on the ice is just a regular routine you do three times a day and becomes 'normal'. And we just had walked up an iceberg. In Antarctica. I specifically asked Eric to repeat this to me ("You have just walked on an iceberg in Antarctica."), just to be reminded of how strange this all is. (Stereotypically, I should have asked him to slap me, just to make sure that this is not all a dream. but that seemed too silly.)
There was also another 'keep an eye out for' task: looking for the rookery.
Dick had noticed that there weren't any eggs or eggshells in the area where the penguin colonies were. So the places where they were now weren't the places where they had been breeding. (Not unusual, the colonies aren't really at any fixed places, as evidenced by some areas of discoloured ice without penguins. And penguins on pristine white ice. And by originally four colonies turning into three.)
So we were supposed to look for the rookery place.
Irina spotted an egg near the side of the iceberg.
It seemed that the penguins had been wintering (and breeding their eggs) close to the iceberg, presumably for protection from the winds. A couple of other eggs could be found nearby
After the iceberg detour, it was time for dinner and the usual after-dinner trip for more penguin photos.
That day there was more feeding going on in the colonies than on the previous days.
At this point (probably before...) it might get noticeable that this is getting a bit monotonous, with a lot of repetitions of "and then we went out for some more penguin pictures".
While that is fun and, since visiting Emperor Penguins on the ice again is quite unlikely, something that should be done as much possible while it lasts (and some iceberg visits help tp add variety), it seems like people were looking for creative outlets.
So when I came back from the penguins one night, the camp was decorated by this:
Not to be outdone, Dick added Stonehenge (well, Snowhenge...) the next day, while the Chinese group started work on the Great (Snow) Wall.
I considered adding the Brandenburg Gate, but then decided against it.
I had my own way of silliness to embarrass myself.
Way back in 2004, I had been to the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. I didn't like the shop very much, which was selling 'Antarctic Clothing' (light fleece and t-shirts), which was just normal stuff with 'Antarctica' printed on it and seemed woefully inadequate for polar surroundings.
I actually wrote that it was stuff that "wouldn't keep you warm in the Antarctic for half an hour". (Which I have to take back - on a sunny, windless day, a t-shirt will easily keep you warm in Antarctica.)
But anyway, I did buy some boxer shorts with an Emperor Penguin pattern. Which I had never worn (when I packed it, it still had the price tag attached), since, admittedly, it looks fairly ridiculous.
But, for some reason (well, other people have been building snow penguins...), it seemed like a good idea to 'model' the shorts for the penguins in camp.
The penguins were not amused. But at least I can now confirm that some stuff that they sell at the Antarctic Centre in Christchurch is sufficient to spend at least 15 minutes without any ill effects beyond loss of dignity (no, I didn't go for the full half hour - at that point I wasn't even aware what I had written back in 2004).
The next day started out nice and sunny.
Sometimes there are 'inverse' tracks in the snow. If there is a light layer of snow and a penguin toboggans on it, the snow will be slightly compressed. If subsequently some wind comes up, it blows the light snow away, but leaves the more compact snow standing, so the depression in the snow becomes elevated. It's easy to see that the penguin 'wobbles' a bit side-to-side when pushing itself forward with its feet.
During the day some clouds appeared on the horizon and the weather became overcast.
Time for another visit of the penguin colony.
This time there was a bit of a change. Dick had spotted some dark shapes a few kilometers beyond the penguin colonies we knew and wondered whether there might be another colony over there. So Eric, Irina and me put on some skis and went there to find out.
What we found was a bit of an oddity. A 'penguin kindergarten' (or, with a more morbid view), a children's crusade.
A group of 250-300 penguin chicks with only 24 adult penguins (the other colonies had roughly an even number or maybe an 60/40 adult/chicks ratio).
Good for 'nice and fluffy' photographs.
But also quite depressing.
There was one small penguin that was quite obviously close to dying. It tried to follow the group, but always just managed to take a couple of steps and fell over. Then it got up again, went some more steps and fell over again. A very sad sight. It's one thing to be aware that 80% of them die in their first year, but it's something else to actually see that happening.
On this somewhat somber note we returned to the other colonies.
The clouds were moving off again and soon it was all bright and sunny again.
And next day it was already time for all of us to leave the penguins.
There had been some talk of flying the Chinese out a day or two earlier, but there had been two 'unscheduled flights' (which usually means emergency evacuations), so the plane wasn't available. And when the Twin Otter became available on Sunday, it was decision time.
They were scheduled to leave (they were formally on the 'Emperor Penguin 1' trip and had gotten their 'duration' on the ice), but since Irina (who was formally on the 'Emperor Penguin 2' trip) had arrived two days later, she had the option of staying for one or two days longer. And since they wouldn't just send a plane out for me, I would be leaving whenever Irina was.
Since she wasn't a birder, she had seen enough of the penguins and the icebergs. (Everything else would be repeat visits anyway, unless we would have gone on a two day tour for the distant iceberg.) And, due to delays, her husband hadn't left Union Glacier for his expedition yet, so she liked the chance to meet him before he left for the South Pole. (Which, as far as I remember, didn't work out. When we arrived at Union Glacier, he had been flown to his expedition start a couple of hours earlier. They got reunited when he arrived at the South Pole.)
I was in a bit of an odd position, since I had booked both Emperor Penguin trips to spend more time in Antarctica and they were originally planned to be sequential, but since they ended up to be mostly parallel, I just had to enjoy it twice as much.
The hard decision was another one. The Ilyushin was arriving in Union Glacier this evening. And the alternatives were flying to Union Glacier and then flying immediately to Punta Arenas from there (cutting the trip three days short at the end, after starting three days late at the beginning). Or staying in Union Glacier camp three more days and taking the next flight back.
Which would usually be a trivial question. Being in Union Glacier is great (and there would surely have been the chance of some local tours and activities there) and I really, really love being in Antarctica.
But there was also a forecast of upcoming bad weather and if I didn't get soon, I might be stuck in Antarctica for a bit. (After all, the people in the group before ours had to wait ten days before they finally got their flight into Antarctica.) Which is also something that I would have cherished. (Extra days in Antarctica. Yeah!) But I had pre-booked a follow-up trip to Easter Island and only had to 'buffer days' planned in, so if my flight out would be delayed by more than two days, I would have lost the chance to go to Easter Island.
In the end (as the headline of this page "Camping with penguins and Easter Island" hints at), I chickened out and decided to fly out the same day.
So with the 'audience' with the Emperor Penguins coming to an end, it was time for some last penguin pictures.
While it may look like the penguin is doing a pirouette, the 'leg in the air' is just the body of a penguin behind it
And then pack up the camp. Not only needed the tents and sleeping bags to be packed, but all other 'structures' needed to be removed, like the wind protection wall behind the cooking tent, the snow walls around the restroom and, ultimately, also the snow penguin sculpture. There was also one last walk to the penguin colony and back to collect all the flags that marked the way
And then the Twin Otter arrived to fly us out.
All that remained was taking some 'survivor' pictures.
And the problem of fitting all the stuff into the plane. We had been flying in with ten people on the DC-3 and had now to fit with eight people and the same gear in the much smaller Twin Otter.
So loading and boarding was a bit of a 3D puzzle. Some gear was loaded in, then Eric had to get to his seat, then some more stuff was loaded in, then three more people took their seat, more gear was added...
But ultimately everything fitted in and we were ready to go.
Time to sit back, relax, have some sandwiches and enjoy the view.
The rest happened quickly. Once we had landed in Union Glacier, we only had time for a short dinner ("Grab a bite. At most 20 minutes. The plane is waiting."), a cursory good-bye wave to Dick, Eric and Irina and we were driven out to the Ilyushin and flew back to Punta Arenas.
And that was the end to the Emperor Penguin trip to Antarctica.
But the vacation continued. More about that here.
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