For the past two days I have been shadowing (and helping out ) researches from the Antarctic Site Inventory project, conducted by Oceanites. It has been can only be called heroic penguin counting.
We landed at Cobalescu Island. We “landed” on a beach that was all of two rocks (but biggish rocks). We timed our scramble out of the zodiac with the waves. As soon as the driver said “Go” you had to be gone. Our whole team of 4 plus our gear made it out it out lickety split. Then we scramble along the rocks and up a steep snow bank (avoiding the penguin trails). It was a bit of an adventure because there were no previous recorded landings in the literature.
As it turns out, “chinstrap” is the penguin word for mountain goat. Boy do these guys climb, and we climbed up right after them.
So the researchers counted and I walked around the colonies with a GPS getting the outline of the colony for later mapping. It was hard work doing all that scrambling while trying not to get blown off by wind. In between colonies we had to slog through snow fields. It was so hot that the snow was all soft and squishy. I kept “post holing” or sinking up to my hip. Sadly for me, the snow had fallen over lots of penguin poop, so I got covered in a mix of krill and slushy snow. I then had to fill in that hole with nearby snow before moving on. If the holes are left, they are penguin death traps. Filled holes keep penguins alive! Some places were so bad we were crawling on our hands and knees (G.I. Jane style) or sliding down on our bums. It was hard work but somebody has to do it.
We then went to Renier Island where the “locals” show off. Sadly there was a LOT of poop and mud here. I got filthy scrambling around and the camera case (after an iodine scrubbing) still smells like rotting krill.
Next up we went to Fort point, which is home to both gentoo and chinstrap penguins. The researcher I was with focuses on the gentoo penguins. They were so tightly clumped (and so many) that I got to help count the penguins with my very own clicker. I also took panoramic photos of the colony so that the researchers can verify their counts later. I learned that gentoos are both disgusting and adaptable. They will nest in anything.
I guess it is not surprising, gentoos seem to have a lot of flexibility in their breeding too. They do not have the extremely high site fidelity (on the scale of a meter) that Adelie’s have. Rather gentoos are able to leave beaches that are no longer suitable and then establish new colonies the following year. That’s probably why we see gentoos popping up all over the place.
I counted 650 gentoos on my clicker today. When they are all clumped together it is very hard work keeping them all straight (I got you, but not you). I ended up pointing my clicker at the penguins to keep them all straight. However, I was handsomely rewarded for my efforts.