Wildlife Holiday News

Penguins of Antarctica

An entry to the Naturetrek 2019 Writing Competition. Sue Cullen travelled on our 2019 Antarctica cruise, and was charmed by the plethora of penguins she encountered.

Penguins −Memories from Antarctica

The best thing about the Antarctica trip was the penguins. We met them all except for the Emperors, which were remote on the other side of the great continent. On West Falkland the cheerful Magellanics approached us, all grubby from their burrows. Cleaned by the sea, they march in a line along the beach, heading for the sea cabbage and watched by a caracara. The punk-head Rockhoppers crowd the surf and come ashore in an eager gaggle. Their yellow plumes are a wet line above the eyes as they bounce up the cliff to their quarrelsome rookery, ignoring Snowy Sheathbills, gulls and oystercatchers.  We saw a few King Penguins too, brooding eggs, but their kingdom is South Georgia. 

And on Salisbury Plain the vast King Penguin rookery holds too many to count – ten thousand saw I at a glance – cooing in a soothing susurration. As well as having the best voices, and being the largest penguins we saw, they are the most inquisitive. They wander up to us in their smart blue-grey plumage, gold tinted at the edges of their white fronts, displaying lobes of orange behind their heads. Some lie down on the shingle, as big fat blobs of grey, ignoring the fur seal pups moving among them. Sometimes there are shags, and the occasional skua, but mostly the penguins take no notice. The King Penguins do not, however, appear to tolerate the ever-present Gentoos which, although much smaller, will give as good as they get when a King tries to peck at them with its huge beak. 

Around the corner the gorgeous Macaronis are leaping into the whirlpool ocean from their rock ledges. Sometimes, understandably, they hesitate until two or three come together to face the great waves, and it is possible to see their flaming gold head-plumes and multicoloured bills. 

The Gentoos are everywhere from the Falklands to Antarctica, distinctive by their white head patch. Squadrons of them porpoise above the still Antarctic waters, jetting from the surface as shiny ovoids, mouths agape. The seas are alive with them; they shoot out onto ice floes and tumble, one after another, back in. 

The elegant Chinstraps also flew above the seas of South Georgia, but we found larger numbers at Elephant Island, making their homes where Shackleton’s crew made theirs.  Like the Rockhoppers, they scale the cliffs for more space, as the pink tinted rocks reveal, and like the Macaronis they plunge fearlessly into the roiling waves.  On Half Moon Island, they sang together, those not busy feeding their chicks. 

We found the hardworking Adelies at Paulet Isle, hurrying up and down their rocky hillsides which are covered with pink guano. Not interested in us, busy, busy, busy with two chicks to feed. And the fluffy chicks, cute and voracious, pursue their parents and beg for food. Eventually they get a stream of liquid krill, delivered beak to beak. The adults back on the ice floes seem altogether happier and more relaxed, and much cleaner. The sea is clearly their true home. 

Finally, at Port Neko, we walked up the snow to visit the Gentoo rookery, next to a calving glacier.  Punctuated by the occasional crash of ice into the water, the atmosphere was calm as the surrounding sea. The Gentoos murmur together and seem pleased to see us there as they go about their business. The creche, nearer the water, was dotted with nests made as circles of small stones, each one carefully placed by the parent birds. They were large enough to contain a parent and two chicks, which nestled close. There were also some eggs to be seen. Single birds march along the runnels made in the snow by their passage, and small groups disport themselves along the waters’ edge, with a cheerful flapping of flippers. I was sorry to leave.

To find out more about our Antarctica cruises, click here.