Most of the places we visited along the Antarctic peninsula boasted extensive penguin colonies. In fact, there was hardly ever a place when there weren’t at least a few of them around. If not on land, we’d see them in the water curiously porpoising around our zodiacs like in the Melchior Islands channel.
Three kinds of penguins live in those colder Southern climates: Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, Adelie penguins. Our onboard expedition team consisted of several highly skilled and experienced Antarctic experts and researchers. They taught us that the Adelies are the most “Antarctic” of the three as they cannot tolerate the warmer climate. Yet, temperatures have been steadily increasing over the years causing the Gentoos to migrate further and further south, thus limiting the habitat of the Adelie penguins. As a result, most of the penguins we saw were Gentoos, followed by Chinstraps and only two or three times we were lucky to catch some Adelies.
Being in an environment where you can see first hand the effects of the warming temperatures and shifting weather patterns gave many of us a big pause. Penguins are the cutest and we had such a good time but when you start to look at them beyond that and within the context of what is happening to Antarctica, worries will so fill your heart soon enough.
In Cuverville Island, we visited the largest Gentoo colony of the region, with about 6500 breeding pairs. Fully covered in snow, Cuverville was just beautiful with penguins waddling along their penguin highways (that’s a thing) everywhere I looked, even up into the hills. But they weren’t breeding. They were huddling together in large groups across the island standing in the snow waiting for it to melt. Eggs need to be laid on rock, not on snow, to avoid them getting wet and cold.
Penguins poop, “guano”, is typically red-colored from the krill they eat. Guano is warm (and very smelly, btw) so it helps to melt the ice. Covered in snow flakes, we could see the many red patches with penguins all around us — their secret poop power was not enough to make the snow melt for the season. Indeed, Cuverville Island had experienced, again, an unusually large amount of snow, as part of the persistently changing weather and wind patterns across the peninsula.
What if the largest Gentoo colony cannot breed one year? Then one generation will be missing. A colony can recover from one disastrous season, but imagine this to occur multiple years in a row. But we are on track for this to happen. The changed weather patterns prevent predicting of what’s going to happen, except for that everything will likely going to become more extreme.
A day before arriving in the South Shetland Islands, we experienced a weather phenomenon that nobody on the ship has seen before. A massive storm bringing fronts from multiple directions together and causing 6 to 8 meter high waves. We weathered the storm but one has to wonder what it going to come next?