Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Emperor Penguin!

One of the highlights of my Antarctic season came at 2100 hrs local time on Christmas Eve. In GMT terms, that's the moment Christmas day started! The Vavilov was sailing past Waterboat Point, where the Chilean station of Gonzalez Videla is situated. It was a clear, sunny evening, and we had just finished dinner on board. We had heard from our sister ship that a lone Emperor was among Gentoos on the isthmus that links the mainland to the peninsula where the station is built, and where the Gentoos have a colony. We rushed up to the port bridge-wing and manned the two ship telescopes. There, lying down on the isthmus, was the unmistakable bulk of a huge penguin. At that late hour we had no chance to get closer, as we were heading for Paradise Harbour to offload our campers for a night in bivvy-bags on the ice. 

Our plans to return for a landing or a zodiac cruise in the morning were foiled by an unfortunate medical emergency that had us passing Waterboat Point at full speed - there was the Emperor again, standing up this time. (Happily our patient was safely evacuated and has recovered well.) 
This is how we saw the Emperor on Christmas Eve: the rounded shape on the left of the image! (Click to enlarge the picture). Luckily it remained in the same spot for several days, enabling One Ocean staff photographer Tony Beck to capture his portrait (top image), with a Gentoo for size comparison. 

Here is the Chilean station, with the isthmus on the right of the picture. Our ships could only reach 64 degrees south in December on account of ice; Emperor colonies on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula are well south of the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees, 33 minutes. Nevertheless the odd vagrant is reported at this latitude from time to time. This one is in immature plumage, with white rather than golden cheek patch. It is probably 18 months old, since Emperors chicks hatch in August. It will spend most of the next two years at sea, returning to its nesting colony aged four, and breeding at five. The weight range of Emperors is 20 to (an unbelievable) 41 kg, while a Gentoo averages 6 kg. So, although it is not much taller than the Gentoo, it is probably four times its weight. 

Despite our views being distant, it was a fantastic Christmas present! Many thanks to Tony Beck for the main photo; also to Nate Small for alerting us to look for it and then spotting it first, and to Alastair and Ruthie McLauchlan for the other photos.  

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