May 072016

Molting Adults-3137
Molting Adult King Penguins, Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island (54′ 03″ S 37′ 01″W)

Field Note:
King penguins are large birds. The adults are almost a meter in height and my guess is that they are somewhat nearsighted, because when they come over to look at you they don’t stop until well inside your comfort zone. They “Penguinamorphise” us at least as much as we Anthropomorphise them.

That nearsightedness is likely a functional choice. It is very difficult to design an eye that sees as well underwater as it does above water. And the majority of the time, penguins are in and under, water. Between breeding cycles they are at sea continuously for at least 4 months, and even when on land to mate and to hatch and rear their chicks, they return to the sea in long shifts to feed.

Near (sighted)-5965

To survive the rigors of total immersion in the Antarctic Ocean at – 3o C (28o F) penguins rely on three things: A heavy layer of fat, plenty of fat-rich food to provide the tremendous number of calories needed for homeostasis, and extremely dense, tough feathers. Those feathers need to be nearly perfect. Shafts must be straight so that individual feathers lay down tight forming an effectively waterproof coat; they must trap just the right amount of air for added insulation; they must be well-oiled and perfectly smooth to minimize drag. Feathers that are frayed and worn cannot accomplish these things and once a year they must be replaced.

Adult at the end of the molt, surrounded by feathers-3061
Adult King Penguin at the End of the Molt (Note feathers littering the ground!)

An Oakum Boy's First Molt (into adult plumage)-4425
An Oakum Boy’s First Molt (into adult plumage)

King Penguins undergo a catastrophic molt, which means they loose all their old feathers at once and it takes about a month for the new ones to completely grow back. During that time penguin chicks are not fed because parents cannot enter the water to fish. They would freeze to death if they did. Even once the molt is complete and parents can swim and feed again, they need a significant portion of the calories they consume to restore their own body weight. And the chicks go hungry.

Chic Begging -5007
Chick Begging, Adamantly

During this time the begging of the chicks is still rewarded but not as often as the chicks would like. When the parents think the chick has had enough – or they themselves have “had enough” – they lean away, or stand tall, and when all else fails they gently tap the young ones on their heads. That we can read and understand these gestures clearly for what they are, is no trivial thing. Maybe the penguins are right to approach us they way they do, and our critique of Penguinomorphisation is misplaced.


A Head Tap gets the Point Across-4971
A Head-Tap Gets the Point Across: No more 

Some writers complain about penguins, that they have a nasty disposition, that the odor of their colonies is overwhelming. Not true. King Penguin voices are symphonic (especially the whirring calls of the adults which express several dissonant yet melodious tones simultaneously), their demeanor is curious and intelligent, and no colony I’ve ever visited is nearly as bad as a men’s locker room.

This story takes place at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia Island. I made several landfalls on South Georgia from the Akademic Ioffe, a large ice-hulled research vessel, while on tour with One Ocean Expeditions ( There were no human footprints anywhere in the Antarctic where we made landing. I saw not a single ship besides our own in 20 days at sea. I am offered all kinds of opportunities for travel these days, and everyone prefaces their offer with “It’s the Trip of Lifetime.” This was. You should go. For advice on when, where, and how to get there, contact me. I’ll be glad to help ()

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 May 7, 2016  General No Responses »
Apr 182016

Elephant Herd Approaches the Waterhole-2
Elephant Herd Approaching A Waterhole 

Field Notes:
In the midst of a herd of elephants I am always too much in thrall to feel my insignificance. It is when elephants are next to other animals, or when the adults among them are beside the elephant very young that scale becomes clear to me. Compared to a great bull everything is small. Size matters. Elephants do not have much to fear.

Baby Elephant Nursing-24270
Baby Elephant Nursing

There are exceptions: For the babies, an inadvertent encounter with a venomous snake; a team of lions in the African dark hunting adolescents or perhaps in extremis, even the full-grown; a man or woman with a gun…

In the latter case after a killing elephants are capable of a simmering anger, and of revenge. The herd that has lost someone to poachers is a collectively dangerous beast. People expecting the romantic version; those who should know better but too inexperienced to take note of the all too obvious signs; those with the sense to be aware but careless or unknowing of the recent history, all invite disaster. They have been stretched by the powerful trunk, pinned by tusks, kneeled on and crushed. Though this is the exception. Elephants prefer flap their ears, trumpet loudly, run back and forth, do almost everything they can to dissuade you before the ears fold back, head lowers, the raised trunk drops and the mock charge turns the irrevocable corner into something else entirely.

Young Elephants Jousting-24271
Young Elephants Jousting

Though not in the same league as poaching, crowded conditions are a tremendous irritant for elephants, just as they are for most other species (including us). Nowhere is there more trespass into the confines of normal animal personal space than a Sub-Saharan waterhole at the end of dry season. Natural enemies are forced to close proximity: Hippos and crocs. Lions and zebra. Hyena, and everybody.

Crocs and elephants…

The largest Nile crocodiles weigh in at 700 kilos or more, and can attain lengths of over 3 meters. Elephants are twice as long as any living crocodile and (even adult females) weigh in at thousands of kilos. Thousands. To flatten the skull of a Nile crocodile, even a large one, is not outside the realm of the possible. One good stomp and we enter the realm of the certain. If we argue that the elephant is too much at risk if it attacks then the question becomes, risk relative to what? Coming close, close enough to make a viable threat is as dangerous as following through. Perhaps more so. If an elephant strikes that heavy blow, the crocodile is one and done. Threat, however, turns the advantage to the croc who now has the option to bite, a bite with its own crushing logic.

The more I look, the more certain I become that restraint is the norm and violence the exception in the unhindered animal world.

Elephant Herd at Dusk-24269
Elephants Drinking, at Dusk

Travelogue:  This August (2016) I will be in the Maasai Mara with Donald Young Safaris. Don operates one of the premier African tented safaris.  To be in the midst of the wildlife is the best experience, and this is what he provides.  Don and I know each other through the Explorers Club (he is a longtime member, I was inducted this Spring). He is serious conservationist, and as such, his concerns extend to both animals and the humans who share the land with them.  Don can be reached at


 April 18, 2016  General No Responses »
Mar 242016

BANNER - Cubs scrambleing after their mother-3076Two Cubs-of-the-Year scrambling after their Mother

Akpatok is a closed island.  Landing is prohibited and approach by boat is restricted to a distance of 500 meters!  I was working from a Zodiac inflatable, which meant I did not have an entirely stable platform, and though I was shooting with a full sensor camera and and a 500 MM lens with a 1.4X extender on it (1.4 X 500 = 700 MM), a lot of it was guesswork.  By which I mean, I could see my targets – in this case the cubs and their mother – but had no idea what they were doing. And I was using the camera hand-held and braced against the gunnel of the boat – near impossible conditions.  Seconds after we sighted the mother and cubs moving down the beach, we spotted a large male polar bear off to the left.
Male Polar Bear ( middle left) Roaring at Fleeing Female and Cubs (lower right)-3120
Male Polar Bear ( middle left); Fleeing Female and her Cubs (lower right)
The reasonable assumption was that the female was not anxious to let him get too close, but in the instant, it was just an assumption. After a few minutes, with the pitch and yaw of the boat and the by now considerable distance, we lost sight of the mother and cubs.
Aboard the main ship that evening, I ran through what I’d shot.  Which looked like a lot of nothing. It was not until several weeks later, at home and recovered from the trip, that I was able to revisit these frames. As it turned out, the male polar bear was much closer to the female and her cubs at the onset. She gained on him, then once again lost ground.  Throughout, he was periodically roaring – mouth wide open – for the space of several steps, i.e. striding and roaring.  However, he never left the upper part of the beach just below the cliffs.
Big male bear roaring!-3119
Male Polar Bear Roaring
The female was moving at a good clip, as evidenced by the fact that the cubs were scrambling to keep up with her. Then, rather suddenly, the male was alone on the beach, continuing on his way, and the female and cubs had vanished.
 Male Polar Bear Continues Along the Beach-3177
Male Polar Bear Continues on his Way
Eventually, I found the female. When the male polar bear had closed again to about 70 meters the female had plunged into the water.
The female dives into the water-3173
 Female Polar Bear Smashes into the Surf
But there was no sign of the cubs.
My cameras shoot at 10 to 14 frames a second.  There is always a certain amount of “blow-by” after the main action is captured and I began to review those frames. This meant searching no more than a few percent of the photo at a time. Pixels are visible at this magnification and I was looking more for light areas than resolvable forms. Whitecaps on the water added to the confusion.
Finally, I found the cubs, not far from where the female made her plunge: one head, then two, swimming the wrong way.  There they were going with the current instead of against it, back towards the male. Multiplying the speed of the waves breaking on shore by the frame rate of the camera I was able to come up an estimate for the speed of the current:  better than 8 knots.
Now, the female had a choice to make. Continue on her way, or go back for her cubs?
Bear-on-bear combat is no different that bar handed combat between humans. Throw weight trumps agility. This is why boxers are restricted to their own weight class. If it came to actual physical contact the female would have been injured or killed outright.  This was why she was fleeing in the first place:  But, she went back for them.
Female turns back for the cubs-3177
Female (center right) Swimming Toward Cubs (two light areas parallel to her) [Note: The small black dots are the female’s nose and eyes thus indicating her direction]
Somehow she communicated to the cubs that they needed to turn around. In an instant they did an about face. She turned also, the cubs following her against the current, presumably toward safety.
Cubs following their mother against the current-3184
Cubs Following Their Mother
The camera lost sight of them after that, and as we saw, the male simply continued on his way never having descended toward the water.  But at their closest, the female and her cubs could not have been more than 20 meters from the male bear.
It could be that all that big male bear wanted was for the female and her cubs to take their competition elsewhere. As one often sees in the summer, his hind quarters were stained – bear diarrhea – the result of too much protein and not enough fat. Summer is a meager time for bears and they are mostly living on reserves and luck.  Akpatok is a (major) thick-billed murre nesting colony and he may have been catching birds, and the occasional egg. There is also the possibility of carrion washing ashore. When Inuit hunt beluga whales they strip only the fat and leave the what whalers called the “kreng” – a derogatory term for carcass – which is the bulk of the whale. It is a hugely wasteful practice occasioned, as one of my Inuit informants told me, by mercury in the meat. However, the toxic levels of PCB in the fat they ignore. The fat “tastes just like coconut.”  And as to the steady decline of the whales? As another informant told me with considerable annoyance, “There are plenty of whales.” The idea that this can continue is nonsense. The idea that half a ton of polar bear can survive in an ice-free arctic on birds and eggs and carcasses is at best, wishful thinking. It is fat bears need to survive the cold; fat that provides the reserves required for female polar beats to nurse their young; fat and a great deal of it that polar bears need in order to continue being polar bears.
But what you have is what you defend, and the male would have been unlikely to want to share the little he had. Hence, at least one motive for the chase.
That said, this was in July. The male bear may not have closed on the female and cubs because he wasn’t up to it. The Arctic in July is not Miami but it’s comparatively warm and the males great bulk may have prevented him from going any faster without exceeding the limits of his thermal regulation. A meal of bear cub is not outside the behavioral limits of a male polar bear though in the past, the primary motive in such cases was likely to force the female to breed again. Given current conditions, hunger might play a more significant role relative to sex, but a nursing polar bear is a determined and ferocious creature. Above all, it was that female bear doing a thing we expect from the best part of ourselves, that saved them.
My prose essays, including the one on this encounter, are broadcast nationally on Public Radio International’s Living on Earth. 
CREDITS:  My visit to Akpatok was made possible by the generous support of Adventure Canada Special thanks are due to Mather James Swan, who made every effort to get me the best vantage for my photos and the acquisition of this story.
 March 24, 2016  General No Responses »