|Windy Cove Emperor Penguin Colony|
As the sun is slowly gaining on the horizon we've now enough hours of enough light around the middle of the day to safely travel off base. There aren't many places to visit but we do have a fairly local colony of Emperor Penguins. Around six thousand of them spend the winter huddled together above their eggs on the sea ice. They weather the same storms, withstand the same cold and see the same stars as we do, but we get to wear high performance fabrics and live in a centrally heated building with three meals a day. They trade freedom from predators for a hard, cold winter.
Like anything down here, a trip onto the sea ice is rather involved. We drive for an hour in a Sno-Cat to the edge of the ice shelf, carrying with us enough food, fuel and tents to last out forty days should something go horribly wrong with the vehicle. We park by the caboose we visited back around Easter then rope up together to walk the final few hundred meters to the top of the ice cliffs. Here we build anchors into the snow surface (two half meter long bits of aluminium), tie on a rope and abseil off the edge. Twenty meters below we land on the sea ice.
The sea ice is somewhere between one and two meters thick and covered with snow. Here and there cracks creep about its surface, but most are obvious, and others can be found by probing ahead with a hefty stick or an unfortunate foot. We don't tie ourselves together on the sea ice, as we wouldn't want to be dragged in after another person, but instead carry throwlines and ice axes just in case we need to rescue someone.
The penguins are visible from our abseil point. A thin black pancake stretched over the white in the distance. We walk towards them, hard boots crunching on the hard surface, soft coats rustling against harnesses, climbing equipment jangling softly with each step. As we approach the colony a thin, hard, brown layer marks the postition they once occupied. Ahead the black stain takes on form. Yellow and white specks bubble in the black carpet, a jagged edge of heads and beaks, small groups broken off from the main crowd like the small drops that shoot from spilled ink. A gentle murmer blows to us on the breeze, soft creaking croaks quite like a flock of seagulls but less hard, a little more tired perhaps.
The colony is massive, the numbers present hard to comprehend. Certainly many thousands of nearly identical animals. Crushed together they fill an area about half the size of a football pitch. Surrounded by the pure white ice cliffs and the shadows against the horizon of towering formations like broken boulders. A unique landscape, formed from water and shaped as tides and winds moved the heavy plates of ice upon each other. Each storm or surge forcing new breaks or folding up small ranges. The extreme cold soon filling any cracks with fresh, hard ice.
We move closer, individuals emerging from the mass. Those around the edge notice us and a short wave of agitation spreads through the colony like a rush of wind on waving wheat. It quickly subsides, the penguins unaware of what we are but untroubled by our colourful presence. We stop a few steps short of the mass and sit. A few curious birds drip from the outside of the huddle and move towards us, come close for a careful look, then waddle away. Some stop and stare a while, or stretch their necks and flap their small flippers. The ones that come out have no eggs to guard, perhaps lost on the ice or perhaps never there to be warmed throughout the winter. Those still huddled closely each have a bulge just above their feet, and walk with a considered shuffle. Always moving slowly to keep their place amongst their colleagues, trying to force their way back to the best protected places in the center of the crush. Now and then they stop to bend their beaks to their feet, carefully adjusting the egg's position before walking on again.
We watch for a time then retreat as the light fades. Following back along our footsteps to the wall of ice we live on. The climb up, off the ice and onto the shelf, is hard. Kicking deep steps into soft snow that often slips as a step is taken. Ascending devices and a rope prevent falls but won't help upwards progress. After more struggling I find a good rythym and soon find myself at the top of the cliff and haul myself over the corner. We finish off the day with a little practise with the rescue lines, suprisingly tricky to target with a little wind, and hard to coil back using thick mittens.
And, for your viewing pleasure (QuickTime movies):
(Thanks for Frances for the loan of her camera, small enough to pop inside my clothes when it gets too cold to work. My normal model does not like being in the cold for more than an hour, and is too bulky to fit inside my coat.)
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