Feb 192017
 

Wallering Baby Elephant Seal-7695

“Baby face! You’ve got the cutest little baby face!”

How do we know that the young of other animals are young? There is a quality of voice, which tends to be higher pitched and less well articulated. Ungainliness is another characteristic (think about kittens on their first exploratory walk). Some research suggest that softened, rounded features are a major clue which, if we think about it, is or less confirmed by our own individual observations and experience.

None of this explains our sympathy.

Elephant Seal Family-4189

We are categorical unsympathetic to the young of insects, even those we regard as beneficial or beautiful. Many who would welcome a monarch butterfly landing on their hand would be reluctant to grant a monarch caterpillar those same privileges. Unless taught (or in the rare case where we directly observe) there is nothing about the caterpillar that tells us who or what it will become. Or even that it will “become,” as opposed to going through life, like an earthworm, exactly as it is in the instant – a caterpillar. There is above all, an innate lack of feeling on our part as opposed to our relationship to baby mammals. The majority of us love to see wild birds. But even so, newborn birds with their bulging eyes and reptilian necks don’t make us feel warm and cuddly.

And yet the when it comes to mammals the inverse is almost always true.

Bull Elephant Seal-4234

There is little to commend an adult male elephant seal in the way of aesthetics. Jabba the Hutt comes to mind, or perhaps some Kleptoparasitic politician. And yet the newborn of the species strike us in an entirely different way. We sympathize.

Why?

How to get to there:

South Georgia Island is nothing if not remote. Be forewarned: That makes the trip expensive. You can go to the Canadian Arctic or even Africa twice for the price of one good trip to the Southern Ocean. But the rewards are extraordinary.

Several tour companies can get you there. Before you choose one, get some idea of how many landings they intend to make, and how long they allow you to stay on shore. For most sites, you want 2 hours at a minimum, and as many landings are possible. Be forewarned: the big cruise ships lean towards a twenty minute drive-by in a Zodiac or the view from a mile off shore. Not the way to go. As a rule of thumb, you don’t want a ship with a complement of passengers much over 120 people.

I was hosted in the Southern Ocean by One Ocean Expeditions (WWW.OneOceanExpeditions.com) and I highly recommend them. It was indeed the trip of a lifetime.

The broadcast of my prose essay that accompanies this post can be heard on Living on Earth.

 

 

 

 

 

Jun 262016
 

Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea-20151025_141021_26962015Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea

Field Note:

I saw my first penguins in the Falklands and for the penguins, or at least some of them, that first was mutual. I was their first human being. Watching each other, we had effects on each other’s behavior.

Initially, when a penguin approached, I tried to get out of
the way. This resulted in penguin panic, ending in a wide arc to get away from me. Eventually I realized that they approached out of interest. Trying to accommodate I bent low.

Wrong again.

Crouching provoked a frisson of confusion ending in the same urgent exit.

I eventually worked out the desired response: Stand Still. And the penguins stood still also studying me, for a long time. This behavior obtained across different species but most notably the Gentoo and the King Penguins
Magellanic Penguin Standing Up in his Burrow-20151025_135246_23292015Magellanic Penguin Posing for a Close-up in his Burrow

Why?

Penguins and humans have gross similarities. Four limbs, bipedal locomotion, upright stance, and the proportions of the parts each to the other. The penguin’s interest may have been rooted in these externals. Certainly, in an encounter involving predation or conflict attention might well go to the equivalent of a threating beak or stiff, batting wings (flippers in the case of another penguin), or worst of all, towards flashing leopard seal teeth. This, just as we would be forced to glance toward a clenched fist and perhaps, a weapon in that fist.
King Penguin Wathcing Me Over His Shoulder-20151031_133957_28642015King Penguin Watching the Author over his Shoulder

In the absence of these forcing situations the attractors loose attraction. There was no compelling reason to look anywhere yet, attention went to the face which would indicate that a penguin attaches importance to the its own face, that face being the only point of reference the penguin has go on. If the penguin looks at a human face, preferentially, it is attaching import to the particular “features” that make up the face. Aside from the basic bilateral symmetry shared by all animals with faces, the face is where the eyes are and therefore the place from which a penguin sees the world. And behind the eyes, Awareness. What we have then is one Awareness locating and seeking out another Awareness.

The penguins were practicing what in humans what be called Anthropomorphization. In this case:

Penguinamorphization.

These days I find it harder, and harder to kill anything, or eat anything, that has the capacity to look me in the eye.

King Penguin Chick-20151031_142050_45372015

“Uncle Al?  Is that you?”

Visiting the Falklands and South Georgia Island
My fieldwork in the Falkland Islands and on South Georgia Island was conducted with the support of One Ocean Expeditions (www.OneOceanExpeditions.com). One Ocean is a particularly good tour company because they made multiple landings, and we were able to spend upwards of 2 hours per landing. This was absolutely essential for wildlife observation, and both wildlife and landscape photography, and for a sense of place. Cruising by on a large boat is hardly the same as setting foot on shore. If you have particular questions, or would like more information about visiting some of the places I’ve been, send me an email: MSL (at) MarkSethLender.com

Gentoo Penguins Returning to their Nests from the Sea-20151025_154514_52642015