I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Penguins (of course)

Penguins are the funniest creatures. I have now seen thousands of penguins, and I do not think I could ever tire of watching them. Everything about these birds is silly, until they get in the sea, when they are compact, speedy underwater flyers. But on land, they are comedy.

Four species of penguin live in the Antarctic -- the Gentoo, Adelie, chinstrap, and macaroni -- and I saw all four.

left-->right: chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo

We were extraordinarily lucky on our voyage and made several landings that are not often possible due to weather conditions, including one at a place called Baily Head, the largest chinstrap penguin colony in the Antarctic. With an estimated sixty thousand breeding pairs, plus many more singletons and juveniles, it is literally a penguin city, with a downtown and suburbs and a port and highways in between.

Penguins make highways everywhere they live, dirty little roads of compact snow streaked with poop, where they walk along alone or in little parades, stepping graciously out of the way of oncoming traffic. The smell is atrocious. Their snow-white bellies are often covered in their own filthy brown crap, their ebony backs streaked with the white stripes of some neighbor's projectile poo. It's actually hard to get a photograph of a nice, clean penguin, unless you catch them right by the sea.

walking through puddles of poop at Baily Head

They are the busiest creatures. Penguins have many tasks to do in the course of their day: waddle or toboggan back and forth from their nest to the sea to hunt for food, build and repair the nest, engage in pre-breeding rituals, mate, sit on eggs, feed the young, and ward off predatory skuas, the large brown birds that enjoy eating penguin eggs and young chicks.

A penguin's most prized resource is the pebble, which the males use to build their nests. Pebbles are pretty much central to the penguin existence, and even their pre-breeding ritual is pebble-based. When a boy and girl penguin like each other, they both reach their necks down to the ground and rise back up again, mimicking the act of picking up a pebble.

Once they mate, the male continues to collect pebbles to fortify the nest, while the female sits on the egg. But the birds build their nests pretty close to each other, so penguin rookeries are one gigantic pebble-stealing fest, with everyone skulking around their neighbor's nest waiting for them to look the other way, or simply grabbing pebbles outright, which results in much squawking and beak-waving.

The funniest part is watching the young mated males bring pebbles back home. These first-time fathers have worked out that pebbles are important, and that they need to continually make home repairs and improvements, but they often don't understand that they have to drop the pebble within the female´s reach as she sits on the nest -- if she gets up and leaves the egg exposed for more than a few moments, it will freeze. I watched one young Gentoo walk all over the beach, finding the best sorts of pebbles, bring them back home, and drop them about a foot away from the female, who would stretch her neck out in vain while the male walked away to find another. The bird did this about twenty times while I watched, and every time some neighbor would just grab the precious pebble away. Poor young fool.

Chicks! Gentoos lay two eggs each breeding season.

The thing that impressed me most about penguins is their industriousness. They are constantly on the move, their feet making a sweet little pitter-patter on the snow. They don't mind about humans at all. I could stand practically amongst them, and they would simply go about their penguin business. A few times, a curious one would walk up and stare at me, but mostly they just got on with their lives. It was a privilege and a treasure to be amongst them, and a natural comedy.

Whales next time, and one more penguin.

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