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Antarctica's March of the Penguins

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London - Whales have a special day, pangolins too, and every December all things simian are celebrated, so it seems only right that penguins should be similarly lauded with World Penguin Day on Monday. The global observance was launched four years ago when scientists at a US Antarctic research centre noticed that, without fail, Adelie penguins returned from the sea to breed on this day every year. It is now used as a means of promoting their conservation.

My admiration for these aquatic, flightless birds rose exponentially during an eight-day cruise around West Antarctica. Like the other 185 passengers on board the Ocean Endeavour, departing from Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, I wanted to be wowed by breaching whales, leopard seals' bloodlust, and nature's borderless paragliders, albatrosses.

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April 25th, 2016 is World Penguin Day which marks the migration of these flightless, feathered creatures annual migration towards north. Picture: Supplied

Yet penguins are the fabric of all wildlife-watching voyages to Antarctica. Always waddling around, they are ready to entertain when whales can't be bothered to surface, and are all too often an oily lunch for predators in a sub-zero world that is as chillingly visceral as it is beautiful.

Even in a landscape as remote as Antarctica, penguins are facing unprecedented impact from humans, something I'd learn throughout our 1 500 nautical-mile voyage from Dr Tom Hart of Oxford University. This hitchhiking penguinologist uses Ocean Endeavour to monitor time-lapse cameras for his Penguin Lifelines project, whose goal is to better understand the threat to penguins and their fluctuating populations.

The first thing to admire about these comical creatures is a tenacity to exist around the Southern Ocean's frozen, wave-battered shorelines. The region's rigours were introduced to me by a hefty sea swell as we sailed south from Cape Horn at the tip of South America during a two-day crossing down the Drake Passage to Antarctica. I lurched around our reinforced ship like a drunken sailor, lolling between my comfortable seventh-deck en-suite cabin, lectures on everything from glaciology to ornithology, the gym, and Polaris Restaurant for Austrian chef Mannfed's excellent cordon bleu cooking.

Most of the world's 17 penguin species exist in the circumpolar Antarctic Convergence Zone, where sea temperatures range from 6ºC to 2ºC and warm sub-Antarctic and cold Antarctic currents meet, spawning rich, penguin-favoured feeding grounds of krill (tiny crustaceans). “Penguins don't like cold water, but they're not stupid. They like the food these waters bring,” lectured French ornithologist, Fabrice Genevois.

Halfway down the Drake Passage, it wasn't long before we spotted our first penguins prospecting for krill, skimming through the water like Wallis' bouncing bombs trailed by a black-browed albatross.

Soon after, the Antarctic Peninsula's ice-entombed isthmus was signposted by a floating behemoth of an iceberg (imagine the White Cliffs of Dover on a world cruise). Land duly appeared as Ocean Endeavour nosed between Brabant and Envers Islands near Neko Harbour on the 65th parallel where, on cue, a pod of humpback whales was gorging on krill.

The combination of blue-hued glaciers and dusky evening light was bewitching.

Planned daily trips onto land further increased my admiration for penguins. Even the pong of their fishy guano didn't deter our fleet of Zodiacs about to storm Neko Harbour, armed with 400mm lenses primed to pap any penguin that moved. Were the birds bothered? Not a bit.

On snowy slopes, against the backdrop of a glacier crevassed into teetering ice towers and wracked by rumbling avalanches, the Gentoo penguins were presumably preoccupied with survival. These knee-high birds, with a distinctive white eye-patch, are one of six Antarctic species that breed on Antarctic land. It was February, nearing summer's end and time was ticking for the colony's chicks to mature enough to face the onset of winter. Both parents made food runs while their downy greyish chicks fussed to be fed. “I've tried the regurgitated krill, it's quite tasty - a little salty perhaps,” said Genevois. I hoped chef Mannfred didn't agree. Elsewhere, mature penguins were preening their moulting feathers.

“These penguins are losers,” commented the ever-phlegmatic Genevois. “They have time to moult because they didn't breed or lose their chicks.

Dr Hart, meanwhile, checked a few of his land-and ice-based cameras, in place to observe the colonies in situ. He explained that his research suggested this 2 000-pair colony remains stable and reveals that Gentoo are remaining around the nesting beaches longer into winter than previously thought. “But this is a late crèche of chicks and quite a few won't survive the coming winter,” he cautioned.

Next day it was Chinstraps' turn to get papped. We sailed down the magnificent Lemaire Channel, whose mountainous flanks of snow and black basalt were patterned like a Friesian cow's hide.

Chinstrap penguins are a little smaller than Gentoo, with porcelain-white faces framed by a delicate black line around their neck. They live beside the Gentoo on a snowbound promontory, Port Charcot, named by early 20th-century French expeditionary, Jean-Baptiste Charcot.

Instead of landing, I took a kayak out for a penguin-eye perspective of their refrigerated world: an abstract gazpacho of fractured sea ice and bobbing blue-veined bergs, everevolving into shapes and textures such as scalloped shells, cubes, Art Deco curves, and floating toadstools, all inextricably dissolving into seawater as clear as glass.

Chinstraps barrelled past our kayaks, surfacing frequently for air. As winter's ice locks the landscape shut, they will head out to sea, fishing exclusively on krill. They can load up on 800 grams of krill - one-seventh of their body weight - to carry back to their chicks.

My admiration for their environment extended to new levels of respect that afternoon. On the ship's daily menu is a Wandering Albatross and Polar Plunge. The former is a gin and Cointreau cocktail; the latter a rites-of-passage dip in the ocean. Joining some of my fellow passengers queuing to take this unnecessary excursion, I felt like a mutineer about to walk the plank into the 1.6ºC brine - initial breathlessness, ice-cream headache, then shock followed in quick succession. The experience lasted barely a minute and ended with a Ukrainian waiter proffering a welcome shot of vodka.

Those same hostile waters host fearsome predators where our admirably brave penguins risk life and flipper every time they fish. “If this is a leopard seal I want to see him shredding penguins,” said Gordon, a no-nonsense pipefitter from Medicine Hat, Calgary. Of course, nobody wanted to see the little chaps getting eaten, but secretly we hoped they might lure some of Antarctica's mammalian and winged predators towards our boat, keen to pick up a penguin.

Orcas, for whom penguins are surely an hors d'oeuvre, offered only distant sightings. Yet Gordon's lust for penguin gore was sated by magnificent leopard seals, so named for their spots. One of these big seals volleyballed an unlucky Gentoo into the air before devouring it.

“Their skin is quite tough, so the leopards have a job biting through,” explained Genevois.

Jostling for dessert, Antarctica's mightiest winged scavengers, giant southern petrels, arrived with powerful vulturine beaks to rip into the remaining carcass, while petite Wilson's storm petrels, nicknamed Jesus Christ birds because they seemingly walk on water, snaffled morsels of flying gristle and blubber. Meanwhile, back at the penguin rookeries, predatory skuas loitered around the chicks to pick off the weakest.

In spite of the natural violence that surrounds them, penguins' biggest adversary is mankind.

Returning northwards towards Tierra del Fuego after three days on the Antarctic Peninsula, Ocean Endeavour called at the scenic South Shetland Isles. We steamed into Deception Island's flooded caldera: its last eruption in 1971 artistically streaked the snowy slopes with cindery, haematite-red ash. Nearby is Antarctica's largest Chinstrap colony at Baily Head, where black volcanic beaches are strewn with 50 000 pairs of Chinstraps. “It's a big colony,” said Dr Hart, “but numbers have fallen by 39 percent since 1986”.

Our onboard lectures muddied any oversimplified notions I had about anthropogenically induced climate change. Certainly, dissolving ice sheets are devastating for penguins. The recently reported Rome-sized Iceberg B09B grounded onto a beach in Eastern Antarctica and during four years has decimated an Adelie penguin colony that now has to detour 60 kilometres in search of krill.

But such ice break-ups may not be down to humans necessarily, cautioned onboard glaciologist Dr Colin Souness. He explained that the enormous Larsen Ice Sheet interlocking the Antarctic Peninsula has badly fragmented over recent decades, yet Eastern Antarctica has been observed to cool, hinting at the possibility of natural cycles of climate change.

However, Dr Hart does see direct human activity affecting penguins. “I'd summarise climate change, fisheries, disease and pollution, as penguins' biggest threat,” he outlined. “As an educated guess I'd say the relationship between climate change and krill-fishing presents the greatest challenge. When krill is over-exploited by fishing, he explained, it impacts penguins' ability to gather sufficient food to raise their young. If the ice sheets melt away, fishing can potentially penetrate deeper into Antarctica. Among other uses, he explained how krill is used in food colouring for products such as farmed salmon and Omega 3 oils.

A final disembarkation in the South Shetlands allowed us the chance to celebrate penguins one last time. Aitcho Island is fortified by Giant's Causeway-like columnar basalt, while humpback whales and leopard seals patrol a broad bay of black sands embedded by beached icebergs offshore.

Mixed colonies of Gentoo and Chinstraps played the crowd. Tubby, downy chicks huddled together, generating a fearful din. Others chased downtrodden parents who plunged into the sea to escape their persistent offspring. I watched with admiration a brave Gentoo repeatedly chasing away a menacing skua.

Life for penguins at the bottom of the world is a lot harder than I'd imagined. These brave little birds deserve celebrating today. I'll certainly be raising a glass. Something chilled, of course.

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