Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (1)

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


In a stiff northwest wind you can smell the chinstrap penguin rookery at Bailey Head, on the eastern side of Deception Island, from sixty kilometers out to sea. It is a fecal barnyard stench, the excreta, in a bountiful summer, of perhaps 180,000 nesting penguins. As one approaches to within a few kilometers of shore, the sea broils with thousands of chinstraps weaving through the swells like plump flying fish. Some muster sufficient momentum to actually fling themselves between the wave crests and briefly become birds of airborne flight. Others streak like dolphins in the blue sea or ride the bow waves of the infrequent passing ships, This is not a summer frolic but an urgent and dangerous gauntlet: the sea is hungry with penguin-eating seals and orcas, also converging on Bailey Head. The ocean turns with eddies of waterlogged feathers and the bobbing, empty skins of penguins turned inside out by leopard seals.

At the black sand beach the penguins belly-surf on the last breakers and flop ashore, waddle, and flop again as the next wave bashes them from behind. here at last it is safe, and they rest on their bellies or stand stolidly amid a flotsam of vesicular pumice and corniced bergy bits – the fractal shapes of volcanism and summer melt.

Deception Island (photo: wikimedia)

Deception Island (photo: wikimedia)

The penguin rookery is in a volcanic crater separated from the beach by a lip of ash sixty meters high. A seasonal stream has cut through the ash. On the warm afternoon in January, when the temperature has edged to just above freezing, it is a torrent. The penguins waddle through the ravine on leveed banks of ash, and i join them. Those returning from the sea, their feathers shiny and clean, mix with those leaving the rookery, their feathers guano-spattered and ruffled with the hassles of chick-rearing. The living waddle indifferently past the slowly decomposing bodies of the dead: scraps of chicks torn apart by skuas, a few adults that have struggled ashore after sustaining injuries at sea. A juvenile elephant seal has also died in the ravine. Two giant petrels stick their heads into its body cavity and enthusiastically gulp little putrid morsels of tissue. They defend themselves by ejecting their gorge, consisting of their most recent meal and a fetid stomach oil, at their enemies, and they lurch at me as I pass, bills gaping.

Entering the rookery, I am surrounded by a cacophony of bickerings and gabblings and a billow of stench. I have the sensation of entering a packed stadium. What a confusion it is: penguins dusting the hills to the horizon, ninety thousand guano-splatted nests. But to a penguin this is not a visual panorama, nor can they decipher patterns in the olfactory waves. It is acoustical. The babel i perceive is eloquence to a penguin. Each returning penguin has memorized the particular timbre and pitch of its mate’s voice, and each baby knows its parent’s voices. An enormous amount of information is being exchanged here: I’m hungry; I’m horny; I belong to you; I’ve survived the hungry sea; here I am.

Chinstrap Penguin (photo: wikipedia)

Chinstrap Penguin (photo: wikipedia)

The crater floor is a giant sewer, with pools of guano – some bearing coiled tapeworms fifteen centimeters long – broken eggs, upchucked krill, and bright green patches of Praseola, a short-lived alga that thrives in the burning nitrogen of excreta. An elephant seal has undulated ashore and indifferently flopped on the penguin nests, crushing the eggs and scattering the chicks. The penguins that nest here have little success. The most experienced penguins climb to the sun-and wind-swept flanks of the crater, where the soil is clean and dry, and some trek as far as three kilometers to its far lip, pulling themselves with beak and claw up steep slopes. But it is a long haul, weaving through their neighbors’ nesting territories and enduring their sharp little pecks.

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