Penguin enthusiast shares Antarctic experience

Emperor penguin sliding - Helen Armstrong March 2017Helen Armstrong recently travelled to Antarctica with Heritage Expeditions. They offer people under 30 scholarships each year so that younger people can experience a place that very few people visit. She shared this report and some photos about her trip earlier this year.

They do this so that the younger generations become spokespeople for an area of our world that sorely needs our protection and commitment. Heritage offer expedition cruises to the Sub Antarctic Islands and all the way to Antarctica. Their cruises all have a wide range of science knowledge among the staff. This means you can attend talks about a wide range of zoological, botanic and historic lectures during the course of your time on the boat. No special training or experience is required before setting sail but of course there are strict biosecurity measures for movement between islands.

On this amazing journey to Antarctica via the Sub Antarctic Islands, we saw 11 of the 17 species of penguin. From the blue penguin living close to home to the largest, the Emperor penguin that lives in the most extreme conditions at the end of the earth.

Penguin slide on Snares Island, Helen Armstrong March 2017 rStarting our journey at Snares Island, we were able to watch the Snares crested penguins on the penguin slide. This towering cliff face has been worn smooth by weather and the constant marching of penguins on a quest to reach the forest above. These birds with unsettling red eyes are endemic to the 300ha Snares island group, giving them the most restricted breeding range of all penguins.

We visited Enderby Island for a quick stop with a NZ local, the yellow-eyed penguin.  From here, it was on to the show stopping wonder of the King and Royal Penguin colonies on Macquarie Island. These enormous colonies were an assault on the senses as soon as you got to Sandy Bay. The noise, the smell, the curiosity. It is like taking a step back in time, a dawn chorus gone crazy.  Sit down for 5 minutes and the penguins are pecking your boots, wondering what kind of strange animal you are.

Royal penguin colony with chicks, Helen Armstrong March 2017 rThe Royal Penguins had all hatched but many of the King Penguins were still incubating their eggs. Single penguins come in to incubate and more birds come in around them to form the large colonies. This means that the first to arrive end up in the middle of the colony and their eggs are the first to hatch. We arrived before the penguins on the outside were hatching but we managed to see one parent feeding its little featherless chick. As soon as you looked away, it was almost impossible to find them again in the fray.

King penguin feeding chick, Helen Armstrong, March 2017The following day we visited the research base on the island and added Southern Rockhopper and Gentoo Penguins to the checklist. From here, it would be three days of open sea before we finally reached the ice floes and the emperor penguins. These large birds are usually solitary when out at sea, so it is uncommon to see them in groups, we were lucky enough to have several sightings of multiple birds. The ice was behaving erratically this season and the channels that are usually open at this time of the year were closed off. This meant we weren’t able to get in to land but also that the birds had longer distances to travel in order to bring food back for their newly hatched chicks. Whilst hanging out waiting for a gap in the ice we heard from the French Antarctic Base that they predicted a 0% success rate for the 40,000 strong breeding colony near the base for this reason.

We had Adelie penguins accompanying us for almost 4 days while we were around the ice. On one occasion while hanging out on an ice floe, we had two Adelie penguins jump on the ice floe with us to check us out. They made great models and posed for some amazing shots.

Adelie penguin on ice floe, Helen Armstrong March 2017 r c

Our next encounter was with Chinstrap Penguins that were living on the Balleny Islands. These remote islands are covered by glaciers and have almost permanent cloud cover.

The only sign of life on the ice was the large colony of penguins which took up half the cliff side on the tiny chunk of rock they have chosen to breed on.  [Photograph below: Chris Todd, Heritage Expeditions]

Balleny Island-Chinstrap colony. Photographer Chris Todd, Heritage Expeditions

Our final penguin in the line up was spotted on Campbell Island, the Erect Crested Penguin. This penguin is more frequently spotted on Bounty or Antipodes Islands but made an appearance for us as number 11 on our trip.