Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly tells the tenth instalment of the unfolding story of the emperor penguin that went where none had gone before. Previous blogs on the penguin were posted between 23 June and 8 September.
One story has dominated New Zealand media since Friday 9 September 2011. The opening of the 7th Rugby World Cup. A spectacular opening ceremony at Eden Park was followed by the top-ranked All Blacks’ clash with Tonga. Endless column-inches and air-time were filled with discussion of whether tyro Israel Dagg had done enough with his 2-try haul to displace veteran fullback Mils Muliaina, whether captain Richie McCaw has lost his mojo, and the truly big question of whether the All Blacks (the most successful international sports team in world history) can win back the William Webb Ellis trophy that they last held following the inaugural 1987 tournament.
Not surprisingly, the national media have paid no attention in the one ongoing New Zealand story that is the focus of international interest: a missing penguin.
Blog #9 “Heading home, or heading east?” described the south-easterly track that the penguin took for the first 4 days after his release, from 4 September to the (NZ time) morning of 8 September. For the next 24 hours he continued on an easterly track. And then nothing. The last signal was received at 20:11:51 UTC on 8 September (about 8:12 am on 9 September, NZ Standard Time).
There are a multitude of reasons why the signal from the transmitter could fail to appear on our screens, and most of them have been mentioned in comments on the previous blog or in tweets on the Sirtrack NZEmperor website. These range from the transmitter no longer sending a signal (transmitter failure or damage), to signals not being received by the satellite (e.g. due to the penguin diving, or the transmitter falling off and sinking, or the transmitter being inside a larger predator), to not enough signals being received (4 or more signals are required per satellite pass for a plotable fix), through to technical failures at the satellite or terrestrial receiving station, or in the software used to filter and map the locations.
For a while, it appeared that an extra-terrestrial higher authority was responsible for the lack of signals. Intense solar flare activity since 9 September played havoc with satellite communications, leading to widespread speculation that this was blocking transmission of the transmitter signals. But sadly no; data from other satellite transmitters have been received by Sirtrack without any apparent problems. The lack of even a single satellite message since last Friday indicates that the transmitter has not broken the surface of the sea at all since then.
It is unlikely that we will ever know what caused the transmissions to cease, but it is time to harden up to the reality that the penguin has returned to the anonymity from which he emerged on 20 June. The Sirtrack team will keep trying to recover a signal, and we will post an update if they succeed. And maybe, just maybe, he will surprise us all by turning up at a monitored emperor penguin colony, where the transponder inserted under the skin on his thigh will remind us all that once upon a time, a long time ago, he was more than just another penguin.
Previous blogs on this topic:
For later blogs on this bird: