Stealing Dirt, my essay on Gentoo penguins, was nationally broadcast on PRI’s Living on Earth during the week of March 11 2016. You can listen online at LOE.org.
Gentoo Penguin colonies are raucous and contentious and the ones on Carcass Island, in the West Falklands, are no exception. That continuous uproar gives them a bad name. “Temperamental,” people say. “Nasty.” Not true. Penguins are delightful and the reputation that precedes them is simply wrong. They are endlessly entertaining to watch, harmless to us and by and large to each other. The noise and the short tempers are primarily the product of crowding. This despite the thin human population of the Falklands, and the fastness and expanse of South Georgia, the South Shetlands and the many small islands off the Antarctic Peninsula as well as the Peninsula itself. Suitable nesting sites for penguins of any species are few and Climate Destabilization only makes it worse. A tabular iceberg grounded in front of one of the most important colonies of Adele penguins in 2011 (picture Central Park, 120 feet high and made of ice). The giant berg blocked the Adele’s route to the sea and 150,000 penguins starved. The berg came from the massive and continuing breakup of the Ross Ice Shelf, in turn a direct result of increasing temperatures. Pray for the penguins.
I spent 3 weeks in the Antarctic with One Ocean Expeditions. The Falkland Islands was our ship’s first port of call. One Ocean is the most conscientious tour group I’ve ever had. They were invaluable to me, and made equally certain every passenger saw and experienced every wildlife and landscape viewing opportunity. At the Gentoo colony on Carcass Island in the West Falklands, I watched the penguins building nests. Penguins seem to have a well-developed sense of community and territoriality, but not the best sense of direction. They deliberately trespass when collecting mud for their nests (hence the title “Stealing Dirt”) – often getting away with it – and not so deliberately trespass when returning to their own turf. This they tend not to get away with. In the banner photo above, a trespassing penguin gets the treatment from his immediate neighbors. In the photos following, you can get an idea of how the conflicts develop their extent, and the very definite limits to how much damage penguins are willing to do (no much).
A male Gentoo crossed over from his own local group to a nearby group, and comes back with a pellet of mud for their mate. She then adds it to the nest mound. Sometimes it’s a little more complicated:
Penguins reward for all this effort is lovemaking. And I say that deliberately. Notice how the female reaches up to touch beaks with her mate. What is this if not the kisses of love?
Thanks to One Ocean Expeditions (www.OneOceanExpeditions.com) , I was ably to spend many hours ashore and in kayaks, with plenty of quality penguin time. The Falklands alone were worth the trip. People are friendly, helpful, the birds close and plentiful (more about that in future columns), it is just a great place. When in Stanley in the East Falklands, be sure to grab lunch (and an Internet connection) at The Waterfront Hotel ( www.Waterfronthotel.co.fk ). For more information about visiting the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula send me an email. To see more photographs, follow me on Twitter, @marksethlender.