Antarctic blog #3 – Camping with emperors

Emperor penguins are penguins of superlatives – largest, deepest diving, able-to-withstand-the-coldest-temperatures etc. But one rarely-mentioned fact is that they are the most curious penguin, as in possessing the strongest innate curiosity. This year’s ‘Emp camp’ at Gould Bay was established 2.3 km from the nearest corner of the colony, to reduce disturbance to the birds cf. having a camp alongside. It took all of 20 minutes for the first penguin to arrive at camp after the first Twin Otter of the season touched down (5 days before our arrival). By the time we arrived, they were a regular, if transient, feature, with some birds always present, and groups of up to 50 pausing to inspect tents and other unfamiliar objects.

Gould Bay camp, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

Gould Bay camp is visited by about 30 emperor penguins, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

This season’s colour was orange (although I suspect that it is the same colour palate as for the last few season’s catalogues). The planes were orange, the two large cooking and dining tents were orange, the guest tents were orange, and so were the smaller staff tents. Perhaps the concentrated splash of orange was a beacon in the otherwise white landscape, drawing the penguins like moths to a flame.

A curious emperor penguin chick. We were not permitted within 5 metres of the penguins - but no-one had told the penguins that. Image: Colin Miskelly

A curious emperor penguin chick. We were not permitted within 5 metres of the penguins – but no-one had told the penguins that. Image: Colin Miskelly

The camp was sited on fast ice alongside a small tabular iceberg, over 300+ m deep water. In addition to providing an aesthetic backdrop and a convenient raised photo-point, the snow-drift in the lee of the berg was easily excavated (and extended by snow-block walls) to create spectacular ice-grotto his and hers latrines. Again, all liquid and solid waste were kept separate, contained (frozen – the default state) and sent to Punta Arenas via Union Glacier for disposal.

Gould Bay latrine. Note hand-sanitiser in alcove. Image: Colin Miskelly

Gould Bay latrine. Note hand-sanitiser in alcove. Image: Colin Miskelly

The temperatures during my initial 4-day visit were relatively balmy (minus 20 to minus 4 degrees Celsius), befitting the coastal situation, although the open sea was about 10 km away. We had 18 people in camp initially, comprised of seven guests, six staff, and five crew from the two Twin Otters, who stayed until required for the flights back to Union Glacier.

Keizo Funatsu

Keizo Funatsu man-hauls a fellow guest back from the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony. Image: Colin Miskelly

The team was reduced to twelve after two days, when a Japanese guest requested that she be taken back to Union Glacier after her sole visit to the penguin colony. Her colony visit was quite a mission, as she had mobility difficulties, and was towed the 5 km round trip on a custom-modified sled. The manpower was proved by Japanese Antarctic legend Keizo Funatsu, who was employed as a support-person for the trip. Keizo was a member of the 1989-90 International TransAntarctic Expedition, which dog-sledded the longest possible (6400 km) axis of Antarctica. They started in the dead of winter at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, travelling via sea-ice initially then up the polar plateau to the South Pole, on to Vostok Station (at the Pole of Inaccessibility, the point furthest from any coastline), then out to the coast at another Russian station (Mirnyy, approximately due south of India). This is only 15 degrees of longitude from Davis Station, where (coincidentally) I was ensconced in February 1990, when Keizo and his five colleagues and their 40 dogs completed their epic journey. At the time he was a professional sled-dog racer and breeder based in Alaska (where he still resides). He had the New Zealand connection of using eight ex-Scott Base huskies among the 40 dogs (3 x teams of 12, plus 4 spares), after the Scott Base huskies were ‘retired’ in 1988. Dogs were banished from the Antarctic continent in 1995, to eliminate the risk of canine distemper infecting Antarctic seals (plus most bases slaughtered seals to feed the dogs).

Emperor penguins in a whiteout, Gould Bay. Image: Colin Miskelly

Emperor penguins in a whiteout, Gould Bay. Image: Colin Miskelly

My time at Gould Bay was simply magical. The first two days were bright sunshine, but were followed by a brief fall of snow then white-out, providing for stunning images of tobogganing and standing emperor penguins against a flat white backdrop. On the second day, we cut a staircase up the side of the camp iceberg, and carted up a table, chairs, and jugs of rum-snow-fruit juice slushies for pre-dinner cocktails. The food during our stay was superb, prepared by an ex-pat Irish chef who had over-wintered several times at Halley Station (UK), and now resides in…Cuba Street (central Wellington).

Tobogganing emperor penguins, Gould Bay. Image: Colin Miskelly

Tobogganing emperor penguins, Gould Bay. Image: Colin Miskelly

Reflection on an iceberg soiree. Staff and guests are reflected in the author's snow goggles. Image courtesy of Susan Ellcome

Reflection on an iceberg soiree. Staff and guests are reflected in the author’s snow goggles. Image courtesy of Susan Ellcome

While at Gould Bay, I made time to census the emperor penguin colony, which proved to be about three times larger than previously estimated (6256 chicks and 3696 adults present – with most breeding adults being at sea gathering food for their half-grown chicks). A few late chicks were still small enough to perform the uber-cute peering-out-while-riding-on-their-parent’s-feet behaviour, while snug inside the brood pouch, but this was only seen between 1 am and 3 am, when the temperature was coldest (although the sun was still in the sky). This was also the best time to see the well-documented huddles of emperor penguin chicks, and provided the softest light for photography, and so my guiding required working odd hours.

Part of the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

Part of the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

An emperor penguin broods its chick, Gould Bay, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

An emperor penguin broods its chick, Gould Bay, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

My stay was too short, but was tempered with the knowledge that I would be returning with the next group of guests in a few days’ time.

Emperor penguin chicks huddle during the cold of 'night', Gould Bay, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

Emperor penguin chicks huddle during the cold of ‘night’, Gould Bay, November 2014. Image: Colin Miskelly

Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly visited Antarctica during November-December 2014 as a guest lecturer for Adventure Network International (ANI). This is the third in a series of blogs based on his experiences in Antarctica, and particularly at the Gould Bay emperor penguin colony in the southern Weddell Sea.

Previous blogs in this series:

Flying south

Camping at 79 degrees south

Subsequent blogs in this series:

The southernmost penguin colony

Running on thick ice

Workhorses of Antarctica

Wildlife of Gould Bay

The end of the world

See also the Te Papa blogs about the emperor penguin that came ashore near Wellington in June 2011:

The global penguin – Part 1. How a lone emperor penguin ventured into superstardom

[links to the eleven subsequent global penguin blogs are found at the bottom of this first blog]

5 Responses

  1. Northlander

    Should the last photo be captioned “The front row of the Emporer Penguin First XV discuss game tactics”?

    Reply
  2. Noel Hyde

    What an amazing experience Colin, love the photos and am thoroughly enjoying your blogs.

    Reply
  3. Kathryn Mansell

    It is great to see your blogs and photos after seeing the TV programme made by Anthony Powell, “Antarctica: A Year on Ice”.

    Reply
  4. Prue Helen Kennard

    What simply gorgeous picture Colin , thank you so much for the chance to keep up with your exciting adventures! Can I ask what camera you used down there?

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Hi Prue
      Thanks very much for your comments. The photographs were taken with a Pentax K-r.
      Cheers, Colin

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