Penguins seem to be everywhere across the Antarctic Peninsula. During the breeding season they are found in large colonies across many islands. Several dozens of them build their nests closely to each other for company and protection. During our visits, we typically saw multiple of these breeding pods but they weren’t always directly next to each other. Yet penguins are social animals that are curious what happens in other pod, or in the one on the other side of the island.
In order to get there through the snow and ice, penguins establish routes for all to take — penguin highways. These well-trodden paths also allow them to find and access to beaches and the water. Being all brown-colored by guano, penguin highways are easy for anyone to recognize, penguins and humans alike. In Antarctica, highway users have right of way. One time, we had to wait patiently for penguins to pass us on their way to another breeding ground. They were curious about us and not sure if it was safe to cross but eventually waddled right past us.
Seeing them marching along the highway, one after another, sometimes over quite a distance, was absolutely adorable. They kept curiously looking around, stopping, and even causing traffic jams. Then they happily moved on. Rinse and repeat. I could have watched this for hours. Particularly cute where the penguins for whom the path was just a bit too long or arduous. They would just get off the highway, lay down and rest for a bit. Because why not? And then, there were plenty of rebels that would goof off the highway and explore the surroundings by braving the snowy and rugged terrain, coming close towards us and checking us out, or simply ignoring us.
We also observed that penguin highways are restricted to just one lane. But penguins frequently go back and forth in both directions. So what do they do? The answer is “it depends”. In most cases, when the highway wasn’t too deep, one party would kindly move off to the side and let the others pass. Other times, carefully squeezing by, belly-to-belly, was the way to go and typically occurred without delay or fuss. A few times I also witnessed some curious decision making. An incoming penguin was making space for several penguins to pass by climbing up the icy side of the highway. A few seconds later it came tumbling (jumping?) back down but instead of moving ahead, it just turned around and joined the outgoing group. Why make life complicated when it’s easier to just go with the flow?
What I learned from watching our black-and-white friends was that it’s great to have established ways for doing things. It does make life easier. But it’s also alright to change direction, take breaks, explore what else is there, make the choice to go where everyone else is going, or to find your own way instead. But do it kindly and without bumping into others or pushing them out of the way — just as penguins do.