Wildlife

Emperor Penguins: Encounters in the Antarctic Wilderness

She turns her head to get a real good look at me, glinting black eyes peering into mine. She then approaches, each step an awkward shuffle, revealing a white shiny belly against the sheen of her black body, a flash of brilliant pink along her sharp beak.

She takes another step, peers closer, seemingly overtaken with pure curiosity, taking in my bright orange coat, big boots, funny hat, and the huge orange monstrosity of a vessel behind me. She vocalizes and the others around her join in the chorus, engulfing me in a brash but melodic cacophony of calls. I realize I’ve been holding my breath and force myself to exhale.

We continue our exchange for a moment more, and then she dismisses me, seemingly bored already, turns away, drops to her belly and slides swiftly off on the icy ground, toes and wingtips propelling her forward. A dozen birds follow her into the snowy dusk.

Emperor penguin in front of our icebreaker at Cape Colbeck (Photo by Cassandra Brooks).
Emperor penguin in front of our icebreaker at Cape Colbeck (Photo by Cassandra Brooks).

We crushed our way into the fast ice at Cape Colbeck in search of Emperor penguins (see photos), but we didn’t need to search: they came to us. Within an hour of arriving, a small group of birds approached the ship, intensely curious about the huge steel intruder. Once we stepped off the boat, they approached us, not with caution, but inquisitively. While in the water they fall prey to leopard seals and killer whales.

Up here on the ice, they have no predators and thus no reason to fear us. They’ve likely never interacted with people before, and unlike so much of the world’s wildlife, they’ve never suffered at our hand.

Emperor penguins on the fast ice at Cape Colbeck (Photo by Cassandra Brooks).
Emperor penguins on the fast ice at Cape Colbeck (Photo by Cassandra Brooks).

Emperors are the largest of all penguin species, standing three feet upright and weighing as much as 90 pounds. They are strong and magnificent birds. As the best avian divers in the world, they can plunge deeper than 1,500 feet (457 meters) below the surface and stay down for more than 20 minutes. But they are perhaps most famous for enduring the long Antarctic winter on behalf of the next generation.

Mom with baby Emperor penguin (Photo by John B. Weller).
Mom with baby Emperor penguin (Photo by John B. Weller).

While most Antarctic birds and mammals head north for the long winter, Emperors head south to breed. By next month, the birds will begin their long inland march, traveling as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) to gather in breeding colonies deep in the fast ice. There, the birds mate, then huddle together to fight the cold as temperatures drop to -40°F (-40°C) and winter winds scream over 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour).

By June, each female lays an egg, which she transfers to her mate before retreating to open water in search of food. At this point, she likely hasn’t eaten in two months. She feasts on krill, fish, and squid, but also stores some of the food in her bolus to feed her newly hatched chick. Once she returns, she stays with the chick as her mate, who has not eaten in almost four months, hastens to open water to feed.

The parents travel back and forth between the colony and open water until December when the chick departs the colony for its first venture into the sea. The parents must then fast again as they molt, standing on the ice for up to a month as new feathers replace the old.

 

Emperor penguins at the ice edge at Cape Colbeck (Photo by Cassandra Brooks).

Our penguin science team brought us out to Cape Colbeck, one of seven Emperor penguin colonies in the Ross Sea, to put satellite tags on birds that will track their movements over the course of the next year. These tags transmit data about the penguins’ travels and diving behavior, revealing key foraging areas as well as information about when exactly they return to their colonies to breed. Their work builds on decades of research on Emperor penguins in the Ross Sea.

A pair of Emperor penguins tagged by our penguin science team (Photo by Rob Dunbar).
A pair of Emperor penguins tagged by our penguin science team (Photo by Rob Dunbar).

A quarter of the world’s Emperor penguins live in the Ross Sea, a region long protected by distance and ice. The Ross Sea remains one of the last places on Earth that is undamaged by humans – there is no wide-spread pollution, no dead zones or plastic patches, no invasive species and, until recently, no large-scale fishing. Most incredibly, the Ross Sea still has near-virgin abundances of all its top predators. It remains a place where visitors enjoy intimacy with wildlife that does not flee in fear.

In recognition of the incredible scientific and ecological value of this region, the nations that govern the Southern Ocean have identified the Ross Sea as a critical area for marine protection. In the coming year, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to see this protection through. In doing so, we can ensure that there will be at least one great oceanic wilderness set aside where Emperor penguins and other members of their ecosystem can continue to thrive.

 

Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.
  • Dudley Jehan

    Your report so evocative of my contact with these wonderful creatures, Halley Bay, Weddel Sea 50 years ago. Thank you

  • Ima Ryma

    Antarctic pilots tell of times
    When things are slow, and so they’ll find
    A penguin colony in climes,
    Thousands of them in groupings lined.
    The plane will slowly fly on by.
    In unison will turn the heads
    Of all the penguins eye by eye.
    A huge black and white wave that spreads.
    The plane flies out, then back it treks,
    Right over the penguins in packs,
    Watching with ever stretching necks,
    Till all fall over on their backs.

    For penguins, planes do have a way
    Of perking up a penguin’s day.

  • Christine Brooks

    So very revealing and interesting learning about the Emperor Penguins and how curious they are re: the boat and people. It is wonderful that tracking is done to learn more about these magnificent penguins.

  • Christine Brooks

    So very revealing and interesting learning about the emperor Penguins and how curious they are re: the boat and people. It is wonderful that tracking is done to learn more about these magnificent penguins.

  • Eric Kent

    One day I would love to see these birds in their natural habitat. Perhaps when I visit Australia I might be able to go some further South and see them for myself.

  • Patricia Teter

    I love these penguins. Fell in love with them when Happy Feet made it’s debut. Now there’s #2 & I love that one. These birds are amazing, can’t get enough of them. Have several stuffed ones–not to play with, just to look at.

  • Carla De Petris

    Your story is fascinating, Those penguin andure hardship. The films on them it was the beginning for me to follow thyer story. I went to Patagonia, but they were much smaller
    and probably had a better life on that little island.
    Thank you for sharing, dtory and pictures.

  • Sally Humperdink

    I am doing homework and this helps me a lot. My report is about 10 facts on Emperor Penguins. Sometimes I wish I was with the world explorers like you, searching for the coolest animals. Thanks so very much!

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