Today is Penguin Awareness Day. So, I proudly present an Aptenodytes patagonicus. This one was wandering around South Georgia with lots of fur seals for company, plus tens of thousands of his/her own kind in the rookery. If you want to do something good for penguins you can go to www.penguinwatch.org and count them. It’s easy and fun!
All three of the following books and their authors were completely new to me, and I’ve added all three writers to my ‘they need exploring’ list.
38 Congo: Alain Mabanckou – Memoirs of a Porcupine (translated by Helen Stevenson)
First of all, I was surprised to learn that there are two Congos on this planet. This book represents the Republic of the Congo. Something I truly enjoyed was that the story of the human beast was narrated by a porcupine … the details and background of which you really should explore yourself! The author also took a rather unconventional approach to sentence structure and punctuation which added to the quirkiness and delight.
39 Ethiopia: Dinaw Mengestu – The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
Amazingly well narrated by Dion Graham, this story was full of tender moments without being tacky. It was also filled with moments of despair which were turned into humour by the three immigrant friends – how else can you avoid not giving into it? By making a guessing game out of dictatorship. The exploration of the question of identity and in what way it is connected to a country has come up time and again in this reading project (and I assume this isn’t going to change). I liked the way it was addressed by the author in this work.
40 Ukraine: Andrey Kurkov – Death and the Penguin (translated by George Bird)
I came across this novel via the BBC World Book Club. Having been to Antarctica and, as regular followers of my blog know, being a big fan of penguins, I just had to read it. Misha the Penguin, a King Penguin, to be precise, isn’t the main character, but my favourite. I thoroughly suffered with him in his wish for Antarctic ice and penguin company. And yes, the story around the obituaries and the Ukranian mafia is equally wonderfully weird.
The number of inhabitants is in the region of several hundred thousand, depending on time of the year. It was stunning to see even from the ship. The tiny Snowy Sheathbills were getting almost no attention.
At the landing site, female Elephant Seals defied all rules of keeping a distance, and the Kings were not any better. I think they liked using the path the humans had created. But we really did keep away from the Elephant Seal bulls. Luckily, they were in much better mood than the Fur Seal bulls. If they were around, we had a system of one taking pictures and the other one guarding and, if necessary shooing the teenage bulls away. I got quite good at that! You just make yourself big, and then let out an almighty ‘HAAA’ coming from deep down in your guts. It’s a bit like Tai Chi.
Along the way we saw several reindeer skeletons. The animals had been introduced by humans, and now they are being culled (http://www.sgisland.gs/index.php/%28h%29Welcome_to_South_Georgia).
Finally, the joy of not a flock, but a carpet of penguins. I found it overwhelming. I was, after all I had seen so far, still unprepared for this. I can deal much better with smaller numbers. But for the penguins and all the scavengers like the Snowy Sheathbills a healthy big colony is what we should wish for and help to protect!
So we said good-bye to South Georgia and started sailing past the South Orkneys to the South Shetland Islands, just off the Antarctic Peninsula.
Our third day at South Georgia started with a lecture about rats and how to kill them. More information can be obtained here: http://www.sgisland.gs/index.php/%28e%29Eradication_Of_Rodents?useskin=env. Being the capital of South Georgia, Grytviken’s deceased inhabitants include Shackleton, whales and the equipment to kill them with.
Very much alive are the scientists from the BAS (http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/about_bas/our_history/stations_and_refuges/kep.php) in their research station. The Elephant Seals, watched by Scottish tourist, are only sleeping. The view over the bay is really spectacular, and I also managed to get my first picture of a Snow Petrel.
Stromness is known because of its connection to Ernest Shackleton and his hike (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Shackleton). That is why the little waterfall at the end of a small valley behind the landing site was a popular destination, particularly for the Brits amongst the passengers. To us it did not matter that much, so we rather enjoyed the lifting clouds and the scenery. The local wildlife consisted mainly of a big Fur Seal colony which had made its home, oh irony, in a former whaling station. I find it vindicating to see how the animals are thriving – there also used be sealing, and Fur Seals came close to extinction. However, one reason for the seals growing in number is lack of competition for food from whales.
‘Intensive commercial hunting of whales removed hundreds of thousands of whales in 60 years and reduced the Southern Ocean stock, once the largest in the world, to less than 10 % of their original numbers and some species to less than 1%.’ (copied from http://www.sght.org/Marine-Wildlife) I find the word ‘removed’ a spectacular euphemism for ‘murdered’.
Here is a map (courtesy of Hurtigruten) to put our South Georgia landings in context. Fortuna Bay greeted us with rain and low-hanging clouds, but since we were well-equipped for this kind of weather, off we went.
There were Fur Seals again! By now, a lot of people had developed a somewhat not-so-friendly view of the young males, but the pups made up for this. It has to be said, however, that less than half of them make it to adulthood.
The highlight of course was the local King Penguin colony, which accidentally is also home to a few Gentoos. The Kings can grow up to one meter in height. There was a lot of coming and going, quite a bit of preening, moulting and the occasional feeding. The juvenile fluffballs can’t swim yet and thus can’t catch their own food. They need to moult and grow their adult plumage first. The penguins don’t seem to mind the humans, and people were paying attention to keep their distance and give the birds right of way. If you have enough patience and don’t mind waiting in the rain, the curious ones will come and inspect you.
Before the passengers could go on shore, the Expedition Team prepared the landing site. At Salisbury Plain that included spotting the bit of the beach that was not entirely occupied by Fur Seals. Boat groups of passengers took turns in who was allowed to go first, and as a result I was the first of only a few lucky ones to make it. The landing had to be aborted and turned into a drive-by on the polarcircle boats because of the swell. Anyway, there I was, being utterly happy. Coming to this place had been a secret hope (the surprise came on the evening before the landing) because this colony is part of a project hosted by the Zooniverse, http://www.penguinwatch.org/.
This meant I had seen pictures similar to mine below before, but was still gobsmacked by the reality. In the project, members of the public, called Citizen Scientists, help to identify juvenile and adult penguins from different colonies. Give it a try! Or go to http://www.penguinlifelines.org/ for more information.
Although the King Penguins are the main attraction, given the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of them not difficult, there was a lot more going on. Giant Petrels were always around. We had to be very careful around young male adult Fur Seals, but the Elephant Seals were much more pleasant. The penguins and the seals seem to exist following a ‘live and let live’ idea. The colony is just one of several on the island, and the peculiar breeding cycle of the Kings gave us a chance to see chicks in all their brown fluffiness, moulting adults and courting adults.
Penguin communication involves a lot of body language. They also spend a surprising amount of time on their bellies or standing on their heels. On a sunny day at Salisbury Plain, life is definitely good.