/ 10 December 2006

How to see a penguin in Antarctica? Play it cool

It seems best to play it cool if you want to see a penguin. Those who come to McMurdo Station, the biggest United States science base in Antarctica, often dream of seeing the regal Emperor penguins or the smaller Adelies, but environmental policies require humans let the birds make the first move, and keep their distance in any case.

”If the animals are reacting to you, you’re too close,” is the general rule.

But sometimes penguins’ curiosity brings them into close proximity with humans who are out in the penguin stomping ground, foraging for scientific data while the birds are foraging for food.

That’s what happened on Saturday, when marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann and her team headed onto the sea ice near Ross Island to catch samples of Antarctic fish and operate an underwater, under-ice robot.

Hofmann, based at the University of California-Santa Barbara, is an experienced Antarctic hand and noticed a small dot about a one kilometre away, which she correctly guessed was a lone penguin.

Hofmann kept still on the ice, eventually getting down on her knees, wondering if the bird would approach. Within a minute or so, the bird dropped down on its feathered belly and started sliding toward the scientist.

The bird, a big Emperor penguin, tobogganed to within about six metres of Hofmann, then stood on its leathery feet and waddled even closer, to about 2,4m away, as if to get a better look.

Penguins have no natural predators on land and have little fear of humans, Hofmann said.

That certainly appeared to be the case as the penguin preened, flapped its stumpy wings, gave a few gutteral cries and turned around several times, as if modeling in some surreal Antarctic fashion show.

With a snowy breast, glossy black back and wings and a patch of shaded sunset yellow-orange near its throat, it was a sight to behold, and seemed to know it.

Later in the day, near a few fishing holes drilled through the ice to collect specimens, a pair of Adelie penguins, also out foraging on a brilliantly sunny spring day, came into view. What drew the eye was their rolling gait, a bit like a tired human two-year-old’s.

They did not venture as close as the Emperor penguin, but did not stray from their course, despite human observers. – Reuters