Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly tells the first part of the unfolding story of the emperor penguin that went where none had gone before (at least in the age of digital media).
An ordinary Tuesday morning. Logged on to the Te Papa server, downloading emails, waiting for the first caffeine jolt of the day to kick in. And then a Department of Conservation colleague rang “What do you know about identifying large penguins?” This was my introduction to the surreal story of the emperor penguin of Peka Peka Beach – a tale that continues to build media momentum as I type.
Emperor penguins are superlative birds on so many counts: the largest penguin, the deepest diving (to 550 m or 1800 ft), the only bird that doesn’t breed on land (they breed on ice), the only bird that stays to endure the most severe winter conditions on the planet…it is no wonder that they capture the imagination. It was over 20 years since I last saw emperor penguins (Prydz Bay, Antarctica), and it was an almost unbelievable experience to see one so close to home.
On the shortest day of the southern calendar, adult male emperor penguins should be huddled together in the middle of the long Antarctic winter night, each incubating the single egg that will produce the next generation. But where are the younger birds? Hold that thought.
The males will not leave the egg for a solid 2 months. When you add on the time it takes to court their mate and to get from and to the distant sea, this equates to close to 4 months without a bite to eat. That is one serious, body-wasting diet. The males lose over 40% of their body weight, dropping from a colossal 38 kg (89 lbs) to a svelte 23 kg (50 lbs). After laying, the females return to sea (after about 40 days of fasting) to fatten up in time to return to feed the newly-hatched chick. In the Ross Sea (south of New Zealand), the eggs hatch mainly in August. The parents then both feed the chick for another four months until it is ready to go to sea. After eight stressful months it is time for the adults to fatten up again for the next hurdle – getting through their annual moult. Like all penguins, emperor penguins shed all their feathers in one go once a year, staying ashore for 30-40 days until their new coat is sleek and waterproof again.
By the time the breeding birds have completed their moult, they have only a couple of months to spare before it is time to return to the breeding colony for the next breeding season. This leaves little time to wander far from the Antarctic coastline.
The young birds have more freedom to explore. They go to sea at the height of the Antarctic summer (December-January), and do not need to return to the colony until they are about 4 years old. During this time they typically stay among the pack ice – the floating fringe of the Antarctic continent – learning to catch fish, squid and krill, trying to avoid leopard seals and killer whales, and hauling out on ice floes whenever they are tired or it is time to moult. This is the natural world of the emperor penguin – an ever changing vista of white ice and blue-grey sea, with the water at a constant temperature just above freezing.
And ice-fields, by and large, are where the young emperor penguins stay. But not all of them. Very rarely, the occasional bird ventures north. Two have reached Macquarie Island (1100 km south-west of mainland New Zealand), and once, a very long time ago, one came ashore near Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city.
Oreti Beach 1967. World famous in New Zealand as the training ground for the world’s fastest Indian (Burt Monro broke flying half-mile records here between 1957 & 1971). In the midst of this, in an era long before cell phones, internet, email, txting, facebook and tweeting, an emperor penguin stepped ashore, and barely made a ripple.
Forty-four years later, another came ashore, 800 km to the north-east, literally and figuratively waddling into new territory for a penguin. Not only was it within a 45 min drive from New Zealand’s capital city (Wellington), but within 48 hours of discovery, this penguin was known about by millions, its story running on at least 920 media sites globally.
The Peka Peka emperor penguin is about 3.5 years old. When I saw it on the morning of 21 June it appeared uninjured, and it had good fat reserves. It was clearly confused by its strange sandy environment. While not fazed by people (as long as they kept a respectful 5 metre distance), it was startled by a horse and rider passing 20 metres away. And when it got thirsty, it tried to swallow wet sand, no doubt expecting it to melt like snow.
We do not know how long it is since this penguin last saw an iceberg, about 2200 km to the south. We don’t know how long it will stay, or where it will go next. In the meantime it is being kept under the watchful eye of the Department of Conservation and Peka Peka community members. It was still there on the morning of 23 June, with an ever-growing throng of admirers.
In the next blog, I’ll provide an update on the penguin’s whereabouts and welfare, and explore some of the management options for this role-reversed Antarctic explorer. Including explaining why it is not a good idea to try to take it ‘home’.
For later blogs on this bird: