Antarctica Tour: 300 Billion Feathers

By Jim Danzenbaker and Ann Nightingale

11 January 2012

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Molting King Penguins are landlocked until all of the old feathers are gone and new ones feathers have grown in (Photo by Ann Nightingale)

Jim’s view: St. Andrew’s Bay should be on a list of the top ten natural wonders of the world. It is home to no less than 300,000 King Penguins. Rough math calculates to 300 billion feathers molted at this single location each year as the carpet of small feathers on the ground demonstrates. The view from a ridge that overlooks the main colony is overpowering. A river of glacial water bisects the center of the colony, giving it an even wilder look. On both sides, King Penguins by the tens of thousands courted, mated, incubated, walked, or trumpteted, making the scene both visually and vocally stunning. 

My goal today was to not only find some egg exchanges, but to show them to 96 other people. I was partially successful. The first exchange was seen by one gentleman who happened to look through my scope at the exact moment of exchange. The second was similar to the first. Finally, third exchange happened on the near side of the colony with no other penguins blocking the view. After 45 minutes of watching the pair go through ritualistic behavior that includes bowing, beaking, caressing, and egg exposure, they finally exchanged in full view of about 30 video cameras, long lenses and binoculars. There were satisfied smiles all around. Yip! Several more exchanges happened, but not to the fanfare of the last. 

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After an elaborate ritual that can last for hours, a pair of King Penguins finally exchanges their single egg. (Photos by Jim Danzenbaker)

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Afterwards Ann and I wandered back to the landing site for lunch. While we ate, and intermittently photographed penguins passing by, the gentle breeze grew to a sustained 25 knot wind. I perked up immediately, as did others who had experience with catabatic winds. They are a force to be reckoned with on any South Georgia landing. These winds can quickly ramp up from nothing to 100 mph sustained and this happens fairly frequently at St. Andrew’s Bay. Thankfully, winds peaked at about 35 knots on this day. Our communications to all on shore were precautionary rather than a call to return to the Zodiacs. Thankfully, most people had already started back as they felt the increased wind. 

The remainder of the day was spent photographing King Penguins, Antarctic Fur Seals and Southern Elephant Seals. I left St. Andrew’s rich with wonderful memories shared on board over a fine meal. As always, everyone had visited different places and seen different things and it was interesting to hear varied perspectives and questions on sightings of the day.  

Ann’s view: Blue skies and smooth water suggested an easy landing at St. Andrew’s Bay today, but the first Zodiacs to the beach found a strong surf hitting the shore, potentially increasing the wetness of our wet landing. However, before long, we were all ashore and about to witness a true spectacle. Fur Seals were not as abundant here as they have been at the other recent landings, but there were good numbers of Elephant Seals. And King Penguins! 

St. Andrew’s Bay is home to the largest colony in the world, some 300,000 strong. Today’s mission was to witness an egg exchange, so we headed to a ridge overlooking this massive colony and watched intently for signs of an imminent transfer of parental duties. Jim had advised us in his lecture that we should try to find two penguins standing closer together than the norm, with a thin dirty one and a clean fat one together. Soon we had a pair in our sights. The ritual of egg exchange can take several hours before the egg holder agrees to transfer it to the other parent. However, our first pair got the deed done in about 20 minutes, and of course, while all but one of us was looking elsewhere. Jim quickly found another pair, who teased and taunted us for about an hour, changing alignment several times before the returning adult gently rolled the egg out from under its mate and onto its own feet. Loud bugling followed, the pair apparently quite happy that the transfer was successful.  

St. Andrew’s Bay is a beautiful site, with glaciers reaching down from the mountains, sharp peaks, lakes and an unbelievable mass of wildlife. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be the first person who came across this amazing place with hundreds of thousands of penguins. Relaxing in the sun on the beach, I was able watch King Penguins enter and return from the sea, frolic in the surf and loaf on the sand and grassy plain. 

The area is also known for its unpredictable winds, and we got a small taste of that this afternoon. Catabatic winds blow down from the glaciers and can build without warning. Fortunately, the winds that hit us today were not particularly fierce and didn’t last too long, so were more of an inconvenience than a danger. Some of the visitors were especially delighted to be at St. Andrew’s Bay as the landing hasn’t been possible on several other trips due to these winds. 

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The penguins were bielod to extract the oil from their bodies. Proof of what I have long suspected: hydrofracking and offshore drilling are not the worst possible ways of extracting oil. Still, it must be admitted that penguins are a renewable and sustainable natural resource. Perhaps a balanced program of bielod penguins, solar energy, and wind power are the answer to America’s needs. Let’s keep an open mind on bielod penguins.

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