Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (4)

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)


It is during the warm summer day that we observe penguins. They are land animals then, nesting in clamorous colonies, scrapping for two-dimensional patches of real estate and small pebbles. But the major portion of the penguin’s life is spent in the dark winter sea. Watching nesting penguins on this summer afternoon at Bailey Head, I can barely imagine their three-dimensional seafaring life; the incessant energy of the waves, their urgent dives to peck krill from the water, followed by explosive draughts of air and long rests on drifting ice flows. Theirs is a twilight realm under the sunless winter sea and ice, but a realm of clarity and dimension, since under the muffling ice, the Southern Ocean precipitates its sediments and is air-clear. They must experience constant anxiety about leopard seals and orcas. Do they remember the warm summer idylls, the sun, their anxiety about skuas?

The enduring quality of penguins is instinct. The monotonous clamor of the penguin courtship displays is hard-wired and unvarying. They are also beasts of chemical impulse. In an instant, during the deepest, darkest nights of the austral winter, the hypothalamuses of 35 million chinstrap penguins each secrete a few molecules of sex hormone. And at that moment it becomes inevitable that when the light returns to Antarctica, the inanimate scree valleys and and snow fields of continent and island will resound with the gabble of displays, and the hills will be streaked russet with the digested shells of seemingly infinite krill. And so, during the austral spring, the penguins follow the retreating ice pack to their natal breeding sites. if the winter has been severe and the pack ice extensive, the early penguins are forced to waddle and toboggan on their bellies, single file over the pack ice, often for hundreds of kilometers. The long files of black Adélies threading the ice are to the Antarctic what the springtime chevrons of geese are to North America or the sinuous files of wildebeest are to the African savanna. Now and then during its migration, a penguin seems to forget what it is doing; it stops in mid-track, maybe closing its eyes for a while. But soon the hormones switch on or a synapse closes, and it is on the move again.


The chinstraps arrive at Bailey Head in mid-November. They are far from the winter’s feeding and have plenty of energy reserves. The males arrive first and bellicosely declare their little territories even before the snow has melted. As the spring thaw proceeds, their real estate becomes even more valuable. Once it reaches rock bottom, envy and greed set in. Ice-free terrain is rare in Antarctica, and penguins have limited resources for marking their nests: stones and pebbles are all there is. Coveting a neighbor’s stones, filching a neighbor’s stones, and fretting over one’s own stones are the summer obsessions. Often the net is zero: on many occasions at Bailey Head I watched a chinstrap steal a stone from a neighbor while one of its own stones was being filched on its unguarded flank, or watched a penguin fend off a potential robber and be blindsided from the rear. Soon the nest has a critical mass of stones, is comfortably situated a little more than one pecking length from its neighbors, and is accentuated by stellate streaks of guano. Like the displays and the stones, the guano is also a signal: metabolism going on here; I’m home.

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