For the past two weeks we’ve been sailing from the shores of Marie Byrd Land, Antarctica, to Punta Arenas, South America. We still have several days to go and much of what we’ve crossed (and still look forward to) are rocky seas that seem empty of wildlife.
This is not surprising in regards to sea birds. In this most remote sector of the world’s oceans, there are no islands, so only the best of the flying birds may venture out here. This is probably true of penguins as well. With no islands suitable for penguins to breed on between New Zealand and South America, there is little reason for any to be here as far as we know.
There is an exception. We know that emperor penguin juveniles after fledging and departing from their natal colonies in the Ross Sea spend the subsequent three to five months swimming into this area. However, they are so few, perhaps 50,000 to 60,000 each summer and autumn, that they are not likely to be seen in the vastness of this Southern Ocean.
Not that we’ve not been looking for them. Like Captain Ahab I’ve posted a great reward to anyone that sights the first emperor penguin. There have been no takers and the further north we go the less likely one will be spotted. Our present position is 57o S; 91oW, which is 723 miles west of the Straits of Magellan. At a roaring surface speed of 11 mph, we will be there in about three days.
During this sojourn from the Antarctic, we’ve gained a much greater appreciation of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean—especially when it took us only 15 hours to span the globe from California to New Zealand when we flew to Antarctica to begin this voyage.
I’ve had much time to reflect upon what an adventure this is. During this trip, we’ve observed emperor penguins at a time when no one else has ever seen them: between molting and returning to the colony. All other scientific observations involve penguins at or near their colonies. Even in the famous movie “March of the Penguins,” filming began during the winter breeding at the colony and ended when they departed.
Our work began soon after that. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with the survey: our observations at Cape Colbeck, the tracking of 21 penguins, and our notes. We’ve watched new ice forming across the Ross Sea in March and noted what the western Ross Sea penguins face in their migration back to those colonies. We’ve tracked some of those birds, and even more birds from the Cape Colbeck colony area.
The data continue to accumulate and we hope all is well with the penguins as winter progresses. We will not be here then, but our transmitters will be, and hopefully they will continue to function and tell us more about the mysteries of the emperor penguin. We will always think of them in a new light now that we have witnessed much of their autumn habitat and how it is likely to develop during the Antarctic winter.
All of us on the cruise, and especially the four of us working with the emperor penguins, are very fortunate, indeed.