Excerpt from the Crystal Desert: Penguins (9)

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 thermal advantages of the crèche vanish on particularly hot days, when body contact becomes a liability. Once when I was at Bailey Head on a late January afternoon, the sun nudged the thermometer into the low teens centigrade. On this torrid day the chicks, their brown down absorbing the sun’s energy, were nearly prostrate with heat. Over the course of the afternoon, as the sun got hotter, I sat rock-still in the shade of a lichen-painted cliff. A crèche of chicks slowly wandered my way, also seeking shade and soon they surrounded me. One climbed onto my outstretched leg. I was background. I was rock. The chick had fluffed its feathers to release heat from its body. It was panting. I studied its yellow and black tongue, whose upper surface had retrograde serrations, an adaptation for grasping slippery krill. I studied its pale, mottled iris, which in adulthood would transform to fathomless black. This eye was able to perceive in both sea and air, winter dark and summer light, to read the semaphore signs of penguin body language. But it couldn’t see me. I studied the thousands of densely packed feathers on the back of its flippers, each tiny pinna glazed with a thin oily iridescence and knitted into a svelte insulating layer. But on the day the flippers were servicing an opposite, as radiators of excessive body heat, and their undersides were pink with swollen blood vessels. I studies the chick’s pink, scaly feet, also tumid with heat-bleeding superficial blood vessels, and its long toes and black, strong nails, adapted to climbing crater walls, but on this afternoon, adroitly maintaining balance on my shifting knee.


By five weeks the brown down of infancy is replaced by oceangoing plumage of a subadult, which lacks the full signature of sexual maturity but has the general piebald pattern of adulthood. The chicks shed their down in uneven strips and patches; some briefly look like punk rockers. the entire landscape of Bailey Head turns fuzzy. Wads of down billow out to sea, collect in the wind-shadows of rocks, and stick to the drying pools of guano. By the time the chicks are fully fledged in February and March, they have grown from 70 to over 3,000 grams. The exhausted parents return to sea, and the abandoned chicks crowd the shoreline. The land is turning inhospitable, and they must enter the ocean too. But they know little about it, save what instinct tells them. The fledglings,  buoyant and lacking muscle tone, are easy prey for leopard seals. The seals know this and patrol offshore, bobbing their heads over the surf to watch the beach. This is their time to feast, and one commonly sees them lunging at the chicks, slitting their skin with sharp teeth, flinging them in the air, snapping them inside out, and swallowing the skinless bodies. But the chicks have a surplus of body fat and can afford to wait and lose a bit of weight. Finally after days even weeks of procrastination, they make the dash through the seals and disappear into the sea,  not to return for at least a year.

But the penguin summer is still not over. In late March the parents and other adults return to the shore to molt their battered and stained feathers and grow the new ones necessary to survive the winter. Since feathers provide waterproofing and insulation, they cannot be replaced at sea. The penguins fast once more, dozing on the beach. It seems effortless, but feathers require protein and fat, and penguins routinely lose 40 percent of their body mass during molt. When in April they return to sea, they are once again famished. It is either feast or famine; this is the motif of their life.

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