In the five years that I’ve been privileged to come to the Antarctic, I’ve never been lucky enough to see an emperor penguin up close in the wild. I may have spotted one standing alone on an ice floe while I was on the NBP several years ago, but it was so far in the distance that even with binoculars, I couldn’t make a positive ID. Today, my luck changed, and I finally got up close and personal with a group of six penguins hanging out near the base.
I’ve been sitting in McMurdo for the past week waiting for the weather to clear up enough that we can get to Pole and open the station. To kill some time, the cargo department organized a trip out to Cape Evans and Shackleton’s historic hut. I’d been out there before, but I figured that any trip off station is better than sitting around watching another movie.
We had been traveling out for about an hour or so, and had just passed the Erebus ice tongue and were about to pass the Razorback islands. It had been a pretty boring drive so far, with no wildlife spotted except for a few Weddell seals off in the distance. I was about to drift off to sleep again when the vehicle we were in lurched to a stop, and we heard the driver on the radio calling out “Penguins! Emperor penguins!” That got everyone awake pretty quickly! We quickly threw on our coats and grabbed our cameras and headed out the door to take a look around. About 150 feet away, and headed straight for us were six Emperors just out for a stroll.
I couldn’t believe our luck…the penguins were obviously curious about us, but as they approached they managed to maintain a dignified appearance. Unlike the clownish adelie penguins, these were stately and aloof. They gave the impression that they didn’t want us to know that they even cared if we were there or not. The whole group stayed together as they approached with no one individual showing any read leadership. Every once in a while, they’d let out a squawk, or wave their flippers, but no matter what, refused to get excited. Eventually they got to within about 20 feet of our group, and hung out for about 10 minutes just watching us watch them. Folks were going crazy with their cameras…I think this was a completely new experience for every one of us.
After about 10 or 15 minutes of hanging out, the penguins started to get bored, and continued on their path across the ice shelf. They were obviously in no hurry to get where ever their destination was, leaving us even more opportunities to get shots of their backsides.
All in all, the entire encounter couldn’t have lasted more than 25 minutes or so, but I think it was one of the highlights of my Antarctic career.