Wildlife Holiday News

Emperor Penguins – Life at the Extreme

It seems that everybody is talking about the episode of the new David Attenborough series 'Dynasties', featuring a colony of Emperor Penguins. Much conversation has been stirred by the film-makers admitting that they dug a path to help some trapped mothers and chicks escape from a deadly ravine into which they had fallen, breaking the media protocol of not interfering. Other memorable moments included Aurora Australis over the colony at Atka Bay, Antarctica; the great huddle of males enduring a fearsome gale and the sinister kidnapping of a chick by a frustrated female. And who could not agonise with the mother penguin abandoning her own chick in the same ravine mentioned above, the latter tumbling down to certain death like a soft toy falling down the stairs?

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Antarctica

This was raw nature all right, telling the gripping story of what is, without doubt, the most extreme life cycle of any bird in the world. When you watched the footage of male Emperors standing in an uncomfortable 4000-strong huddle while the worst of an 120 kilometres per hour Antarctic gale raged about them and the temperature plunged to -60°C, perhaps you asked yourself the question: How was it, back in the species’ forgotten past, that one day an ancestral Emperor thought it was a good idea to breed in the Antarctic winter? What forces compelled this species, the world’s largest penguin, to adopt such tactics, even if it does keep it uniquely safe from predators? After all, none of the other 17 species of penguins do anything like this; they breed in the Austral summer. Amazingly, on the very same date in the calendar that Emperors are freezing, Galapagos Penguins on the Equator may be frying on their nests in temperatures 100 degrees hotter, at 40°C.

The Emperors’ incredible adventure almost defies belief. Males and females walk to the colony on newly formed sea-ice, sometimes covering as much as 120 kilometres on foot (much less, 25 kilometres, for the colony at Atka Bay). Once the female has laid the egg, she transfers it to the male’s “pouch” above the feet and returns to the sea to fish and gather her strength, so the male is the sole incubator. The males then sit out the cold and dark of winter, facing the brunt of it without feeding for four whole months. Despite this, when the chicks hatch, the virtually starving father feeds them for a few days on a special “penguin milk” unique to these birds. Then, with remarkably acute timing, the females return to the colony like the cavalry to relieve the males and feed the chicks their first taste of fish.

There are only 53 colonies of Emperor Penguins in the world, all situated between 66° and 77° South, invariably in harsh, remote locations that are exceedingly difficult to reach. Owing to the fact that Naturetrek clients don’t thrive in temperatures of -60°C and we would also prefer not to dig anyone out of an ice ravine, there is no easy way of showing anybody this bird. However, the odd Emperor is sometimes seen from Antarctic cruises, and wandering individuals sometimes turn up further north.

But while an Emperor might be out of reach, its gorgeous, entirely unspoilt habitat is not. It is possible to marvel at the raw, stark Antarctic and sub-Antarctic landscape, realising the sheer variety of black, white and blue intermixed in thousands of variations and admire the other-worldly majesty of icebergs. The harsh but productive waters of the deep south teem with life, including different species of albatrosses, petrels, whales, dolphins and seals. And of course, there are penguins, not just in Antarctica but on many other Naturetrek tours.

See all of the world's penguin species with Naturetrek:

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Humpback Whale

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African Penguins

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King Penguin Colony (Barbara Evans)

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Rockhopper Penguins