Feathery Friends

For the past week or two, we have been SCUBA diving at two new sites called Cinder Cones and Turtle Rock. Access to both sites involves a 1-to-1.5-hour drive in the Pistin Bully on the sea ice towards Erebus Bay.

Video credit: Rowan McLachlan

This drive is arguably the most beautiful commute on the planet.

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

This journey, whilst beautiful, is not always the most comfortable! The sea ice is covered in cracks, rafted ice, and pressure ridges, all of which are quite bumpy to cross. Unfortunately, only the driver’s seat has any suspension… luckily, we all take turns driving!

Last Friday, on our journey home after a day of diving under the ice, we received an unexpected call on the radio from Central Comms at McMurdo Station:

“Pistin Bully 318. This is Central Comms on Channel 3. Over.”

“Central Comms. This is Pistin Bully 318. Go ahead.”

“Pistin Bully 318. We wanted to let you know that there are penguins on the sea ice about a mile ahead of you on the road”

“Thank you central comms!”

This is the first penguin sighting this year at McMurdo and everyone was very excited – including those working at Central Comms!

As we continued our drive, I asked Rob, who I was driving with that day whether he thought they would be Adelie or Emperor penguins – and he reckoned Emperors that had wandered over from Cape Crozier.

Cape Crozier is the most easterly point of Ross Island, as shown in the map below (FYI McMurdo Towan where we are currently located next to Hut Point on the peninsula at the bottom left of the map). Cape Crozier is home to one of the two southernmost emperor penguin colonies in the world (>1900 breeding pairs as of 2018), one of the largest Adelie penguin colonies in the world (~270,000 breeding pairs as of 2012), and one of the largest south polar skua colonies in the world (~1,000 breeding pairs) [according to Wikipedia!].

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/43/Ross_Island_Map_topo-en.svg/1200px-Ross_Island_Map_topo-en.svg.png

As we approached, I quickly grabbed my camera and set it up with my 200 mm zoom lens. I was very excited to get to see wild penguins! As we drew closer to town, we were scanning the horizon frantically. It turned out that they were impossible to miss! Up ahead, at the side of the flagged sea ice route were two little black-and-white mounds.

As part of the Antarctic treaty, all wildlife in Antarctica is protected and it is against the law to engage in harmful interference in Antarctica of native mammals, native birds, native plants or native invertebrates. So we kept our distance and parked the Pistin Bully about 100 m away. In my frantic attempt to take photos, I jumped out of the vehicle without grabbing my Big Red jacket or gloves – both of which were really necessary today as the wind had picked up. However, at that time, I couldn’t feel the cold – I was too excited! I ran away from the Pistin Bully and away from the others to get a shot of the penguins with McMurdo Town in the background:

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

However, as soon as I knelt on the ground, the penguins looked in my direction, and started to walk directly toward me!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan
Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

They continued to beeline my way!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

The way they walked was adorable. The slow and steady waddle! The closer and closer they got, the more zoomed-in my photos were becoming. Suddenly wishing I had opted for a different camera lens! Eventually, it reached the point where I could barely fit their heads in the frame! I had no idea they were going to be this curious!

Photo credit: Rowan McLachlan

When they were about 6 ft away from me, they halted their march and surveyed me thoroughly. Watchful eyes, wing flaps, and head bobs. They were unbelievably beautiful. The yellow colors on their neck and the pink on their beaks were gorgeous. Their feathers were so intricate and shiny. Not to mention, they were adorably fat and super cute!

I was on cloud nine. Finally, I just put the camera down and enjoyed the moment.

Photo credit: Andrew Thurber

Here I was, at the bottom of the world having this incredible interaction with some of the locals. As one of the scientists who are working on the sea ice, we were incredibly fortunate to have this experience – the majority of McMurdo Citizens are not able to get this close to wildlife – and so I realize what a privilege this was. However, some folks were able to watch us from the station with their binoculars!

Eventually, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and my face was getting very cold from the wind. So I headed back to the Pistin Bully, backing away slowly so as not to startle them. However, they were not phased. In fact not long after I left, they started their little waddle and came right on up to the Pistin Bully to have a look.

We spent about 30 minutes watching the penguins. They were very serene and a pleasure to observe.

Video credit: Rowan McLachlan

This was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. Thank you to my new feathery friends.

Video credit: Andrew Thurber
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