Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (7)

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)


The male immediately returns to sea, where he will feed from five to seven days. Procreation has depleted him. For a month he has fasted, all the while declaring a territory, defending it, luring a mate, and fertilizing her, and now he must fatten up on krill. Once again he is an aquatic animal, flying through the water as far as eighty kilometers from shore. When finally the sleek, gorged male returns to the nest, his mate is scruffy, caked with guano, and at her physiological limit from producing and brooding the eggs and defending them from enemies. Again, all is timing: should the male not return, or return just a few days late, she will abandon the eggs to the freezing wind and marauding skuas. She recognizes him, not by his appearance but by her memory of his voice, and both penguins begin mutual vocalizations, bellowing their identities to the sky. The female steps off the nest, leaving the eggs exposed to the wind and cold earth, and the male enters the nest, quickly transferring the eggs to his brood pouch before they freeze. gentoo-penguin-with-egg

Now it is the female’s turn to feed at sea. During incubation the male and female relieve each other at the nest, each time for a slightly shorter period. By the time the chicks hatch at thirty-two to thirty-five days, the shifts are occurring daily. The chicks can subsist for four days on the reserves of their yolk sac, but afterward they become insatiable and demanding. For the parents the long periods of stolid waiting are a cinch compared to chick rearing. The chicks require regurgitated krill, shelter, body warmth, and protection from skuas. The parents are on a nutritional treadmill from sea to land, converting krill to penguin flesh. By early January, one sees legions of chinstraps waddling onto the thin beach at Bailey Head, displaying to their neighbors, maybe bill-fencing a bit as they tread through the alien nests on the way to their own. Their return is greeted by the familiar cacophony of family: the mutual identity vocalizations with their mates, the frantic gaping and crying of the chicks. The chicks seems to be all stomach and gut, and from the perspective of an adult looking down at its fluffy brown offspring, they must appear to be little more than open maws. Cued by this sight, the parent bows its head and gapes. The chick forces its head halfway into its parent’s gullet, contentedly gulping regurgitated krill paste. Feeding is over in seconds, and the chicks void just as quickly, squirting jets of pink guano into the demilitarized zone between the nests.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *