Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Things You Never Knew About Penguins

1. They stink. God almighty, do they stink. (Especially when congregated in large numbers, as they usually are. ) Something about all the krill they eat, which turns their guano bright pink.

2. They are very, very loud. And despite the cute, comical appearance (Disney couldn’t design a more appealing character), they don’t have sweet, musical voices – think donkeys braying, or rusty screen doors screeching.

3. They are very, very curious and completely unafraid of humans. Stay still long enough, and a penguin will come up to you to investigate this strange new creature. And beware if you leave anything sitting on the ice – an inquisitive penguin may snap it up before you realize. I nearly lost a glove this way, but fortunately penguins don’t move very fast on land.

4. If walking – make that waddling – around upright becomes too much of a chore, they may choose to just flop over on their bellies and propel themselves along the snow like toboggans. Sometimes they end up doing this when they trip over their own feet; they`re not the most graceful birds on land! But they move astonishingly fast in the water, and ``porpoise` out of the water like dolphins doing tricks. Some would occasionally swim alongside the ship, and they could keep up for short stretches.

5. They range in size from tiny fairy penguins at just over a foot tall, to the gigantic Emperor penguin (of the March of the Penguins fame), that can grow as tall as 1.2 metres. That’s almost as tall as my little sister! (Shelley ... just kidding, of course ...)

Antarctica isn`t ONLY about the penguins, but they were definitely a highlight. I think I could (actually, I think I did) watch them for hours without getting bored; they are social, gregarious, comically constructed and quarrelsome little birds whose behaviour just makes you smile. In a bad mood? Feeling a little down? Watch a penguin ... you may just find yourself giggling uncontrollably.

They are completely fearless on land, as there are no land-based predators in the Antarctic (no, there are no polar bears), and they have never had reason to learn a fear of humans, so they will shuffle up to you inquisitively, squawking as if to say, `Who are you and why are you here? And do you have any food for me?`. Penguin chicks in particular – even the nearly full-grown ones that we saw – are fixated on the `food`question, and will beg humans or adult penguins indiscriminately for just one more free meal, before they have to go fish for themselves. That`s too much like hard work!

Of course, they`re probably worried about the seals, too. Fur seals abound in the Antarctic (at least where I was), and while they`ll cosy up to penguins on land in a friendly fashion, in the sea it`s all about the next meal – seals, too, are comical on land, but in the water they`re lean, mean hunting machines. So they save their penguin chases for the water.

Fur seals can be pretty aggressive towards humans, too, I learned. I didn`t actually get charged – just growled at loudly and threateningly – but one of my fellow cruise passengers did. Advice, should you ever find yourself being charged by a fur seal (who have wickedly sharp teeth): stand your ground, make lots of noise, and try to look as large and intimidating as possible. Basically what you`re also told to do if encountering a bear ... although I think in that situation, I might not have the presence of mind to stay calm!

But leopard seals are the ones you really have to watch. While fur seals might occasionally get a little cantankerous, they still look cute and goofy; but leopard seals look evil, menacing ... reptilian, almost, with a body that is sleeker and leaner than other seals, and a huge head with immensely powerful jaws. When a leopard seal catches a penguin, it flings that enormous head from side to side, thrashing the bird against the water till the skin is loosened and the blubber ready for those teeth to tear into.

They don`t actively prey on humans – of course, that could be just that they haven`t encountered enough of us to get a taste – but they have killed at least one scientist working in the Antarctic. She was walking innocently along the ice, doing whatever it is that science boffins do, when she was seized by a leopard seal`s fearsome teeth and dragged 300 feet under water.

I saw a few of those, from a safe distance. I was happy to leave it that way.

Since I seem to be on a wildlife kick in this post, I think I`ll carry on. We also saw an enormous variety of whales and dolphins – Minke, fin, and humpback whales; hourglass and bottlenose dolphins, and killer whales (who, you may already know, are actually dolphins, not whales). The orcas were only visible as fins cutting the water in the distance, but we got up close and personal with some of the other creatures. At one point, a humpback whale swam alongside the ship just below the surface of the water, so we could see the entire beast from nose to tail; he was approximately the size of a bus, and wasn`t even considered a `large`humpback whale according to our on-board marine mammal expert.

We went cruising in Zodiacs one afternoon, following around random wildlife. We passed over the spot where a humpback whale has just surface to breathe, and take it from me they`ve got nasty breath. The smell of rotting fish lingered in the air long after the whale had re-submerged. But they`re majestic and stately animals, and a little fish odour never hurt anyone.

And the other birds! As well as the ever-present penguins, Antarctica`s birdlife is abundant and fascinating ... everything from tiny swallow-like birds, who look like the first puff of wind should knock them out of the air yet manage to stay at sea for years at a time without ever going back to lands, to the gargantuan wandering albatross with a wingspan of about 3.5 metres.

But, much as I loved watching the whales and the seals and the dolphins and the flying birds, it was the penguins that stole my heart. Now, if I can just figure out how to smuggle one back to Toronto ...


  1. Love it! So glad it was so amazing.

  2. Oh! You make me want to go there; you make penguin-watching sound like paradise on Earth...and leopard seals sound really scary. You would love Vancouver in the much cool wildlife right in the city. Once in the boat we saw a seal fighting with a salmon (the salmon was in the seal's mouth). We watched for a few minutes but didn't stick around to see the end...pretty sure the seal won but it was a damn close fight.