But Wait! There’s More! (Penguins)

I’m starting to feel like a late-night infomercial… “You thought Adelie penguins were awesome, check out these two Emperor penguins! But wait! There’s more! Double, no, triple – no, just for viewers watching right now, we will quadruple the number of penguins on offer for a limited time only!!”

After finishing work yesterday morning, I set out with ten others on a penguin expedition… the two that I saw last week had invited some friends. We can’t be sure, but it is most likely that these are all unattached males who didn’t mate last season and are now molting in a kind of fraternal bachelorhood.

A veritable plethora of penguins! Penguinpalooza! I particularly love how they gathered around the red flag... almost as if considering the composition of the photos the paparazzi would be taking.

That’s right, ladies, these fellows are unattached and yours for the taking!*

(*Although actually taking a penguin would be, as we all know, a violation of the International Antarctic Treaty. Not that I haven’t thought about it. I’d want an Adelie though. Much cuter. The Emperors don’t even tap dance or sing slow burn R&B ballads like Hollywood led me to believe they would. They don’t even march. You lied, Morgan Freeman, you lied…)

They may not march or tap dance, but they do know how to pose. And how to hold that pose for a very, very, verrrrrry long time.

While they are less entertaining than the Adelies, it was pretty dang cool to get that close to the Emperors… our shuttle driver got out a tape measure to show us how far 25 feet was before we were allowed to approach them. That’s the minimum distance required by the treaty, which is pretty close when you come down to it.

If you’re thinking “those penguins ought to march or tap dance or do something… they’re looking a little chunky,” hey, leave the pengies alone. When they are molting, they don’t eat at all, and typically lose up to half of their body weight. Then they’ll fatten up again, breed and, if they’re males, egg-tend and eat nothing again for another four months. When you look at the annual cycle of an Emperor Penguin, it seems insanely inefficient. It is remarkable these guys have survived at all.

I think this photo captures why Antarctica appeals to me so much. In the beautiful bleakness category, this place is off the charts. Note the fuel tanker chugging through the sea ice on the horizon (towards left of photo)

My favorite thing about these photos, however, is the light. It’s hard to describe the light here on a gloomy day. It is not like anywhere else I’ve been. It is a dead light that, unlike the gloom of, say, a Scandinavian or Russian winter, does not shift as the hours wax and wane.

You can never have enough "penguins in the wild" shots.

We had two days of heavy snow and thick fog and howling wind… when it finally settled into what you see in the photos above, it seemed as if the snow and sky had merged, and were greedily sucking up the light, flattening perspectives. The black rock of Ob Hill and the Hut Point Ridge behind the penguins, as well as the dark sky over the open water to the north, looks painted in.

A few days ago, before the snowy, windy interlude, we had dead light again, this time with a thick bank of fog that sat over the sea ice as the icebreaker Oden wandered about the sound. (Oden does seem to wander… I’m sure it’s all very important logistically and well planned, but I’ve seen the ship back in and out of our tiny port several times within an hour, then meander from one side of the sound to the other in a byzantine pattern.)

Oden in the dead light

Today, my day off, I woke to find the skies brilliantly blue and clear, the open water created by Oden looking more like a mirror than sea.

McMurdo Sound in (finally) clear weather... note open water around the ice pier

Forget laundry and (no offense) updating the blog… I set off on a hike, this time up to the summit of Ob Hill. It took well under half an hour to get to the top and, er, four times as long to get down. What can I say… my ankles do not enjoy doing downhill on steep, loose volcanic rock and scree.

The summit of Ob Hill... the cross was erected in 1913 in memory of Scott and those who perished with him... yes, there are lots of crosses around here. Hey, it didn't turn out too well for lots of people who came here. As one friend said, "You realize we live in a cemetery, don't you?"

With clear skies and no wind, however, it was the perfect day to do the hike… as I made my way down like an old man looking for change on the sidewalk, I saw a cloud moving in from the direction of White Island, across the sound.

Standing on the Ob Hill summit and looking more or less southish... and seeing the first sign of incoming cloud over White Island

I remembered at our Outdoor Safety Lecture way back in August that once a cloud covered White Island, you had, at most, 30-40 minutes before it reached McMurdo. I continued down and, sure enough, about half an hour later as I was walking back into town, the skies had dulled with thick, gray clouds and snow was falling.

A good time to do laundry and update the blog.


2 thoughts on “But Wait! There’s More! (Penguins)

  1. WOW! Miss Gemma Who Lives With The Penguins!!! These shots are terrific! I’ve always loved the little buggers, even though with time, they have come to remind me of some chubby nuns I’ve known. Good for you, going after LIFE the way you do.

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