Photo Friday: A trip to Emperor Penguin Colony

As it’s been a while since my last Photo Friday article, I’ve got a little gem of a Photo Friday for all of you this week. We went to see the nearby Emperor Penguins Colony last Wednesday, and this is the result of the trip!

Fourth time lucky

One of the biggest highlights of being here at Halley on the Brunt Ice Shelf is that our closest neighbours are a large colony of Emperor Penguins. They live on the sea ice at Windy Bay, some 35 km away from Halley VI.

As we are getting more and more of daylight since the first Sun Rise mid August (which I have missed, due to my week of nights on generators watch that week), and the weather is actually a little warmer than usual after two weeks of relentless -50°C temperatures, we’ve decided to run what we call Penguin Trips.

They were originally planned to kick off last week, however as luck would have it, it was either too cold (the absolute minimum temperature we can safely start and use the Skidoos is -35°C), or when it was marginally warmer, we couldn’t start the doos, as they have been so cold for so long. We tried three times last week to no avail.

Finally, last Wednesday, after a bit of a blow which brought with it unusually warm weather with temperatures reaching as high as -8.5°C, we managed to get the Skidoos started and ran the trip.

Getting there

The trip on the Skidoos takes about 1 hour 30 minutes when moving at about 30kph. We went along a flag line that extends all the way from the west side of the perimeter around Halley VI station, via the old Halley V site and to the Caboose at Windy Bay.

We arrived on site, and parked the Skidoos facing into the wind and the loaded Nansen sledge to give them some protection from the elements. The weather was nice and calm, with the temperature around -20°C and the wind speed was around 10 knots.

We quickly dug out the caboose from under the snow – in fact it wasn’t too bad, with only a bit of a wind tail covering the door. It took us no more than around 10-15 minutes to dig it out sufficiently to be able to open the door and go inside to check it out.

After that, we roped up, grabbed our gear and set out to the edge of the Ice Shelf, towards the sea ice. Every time we’re moving in an uncertain terrain, which the edge of the Ice Shelf definitely classifies as, we use a link system. If there are two people traveling, each of them takes about a third of the rope and coils it diagonally across their chest (e.g. right shoulder to left hip), and attaches it to the belay loop on their climbing harness. This gives each person a slack reserve to set up an anchor should the other person fall into a crevasse, and at the same time makes up for a decent enough substitute of a chest harness. With three people (as was the case on the trip), the two people at the end of the rope make smaller coils, and the third person goes into the middle of the rope and clips into a loop made by tying an alpine butterfly knot, roughly half way through the length of the rope.

We approached the edge of the Ice Shelf and Al proceeded to check it for a suitable abseil location. What we were looking for was a place with no cornices or overhangs, and with solid bottom with no apparent cracks there. In the end we had to move about 1km away from the original end of the flag line in the east direction to find a suitable spot, checking the edge of the Ice Sheet every 100-200m or so.

Sea Ice

After setting up two bombproof anchors, we abseiled some 30m down onto the sea ice. At this stage we have been about 1km away from the penguin colony, however a small number of more adventurous Emperors have spotted us and made their way toward us to check us out. They are quite inquisitive and they don’t really have enemies on sea ice, so they feel very safe.

The Antarctic Treaty specifies that people in Antarctica shouldn’t approach wild animals, and various sources specify different distance to keep between yourself and the animal, ranging from 5m to 50m. The Treaty itself doesn’t impose any hard limits, however it specifies people shouldn’t disturb animals in any way or change their behaviour. You can tell us to stay away from the penguins by at least 5m (or 50m), but try to explain that to a penguin!

Even though they have their chicks (most of them have just been born within the last few weeks), they are still very curious, and try as you might, they will come towards you and breach those limits. Which obviously gives great opportunity for photographs!

Most of the penguins stay in this great huddle, where they stand really close to each other to preserve as much heat as possible. Typically the weaker and younger ones will be somewhere in the centre of the huddle. The whole huddle constantly keeps shifting, so that the penguins which are outside get a bit of a break once in a while and migrate inward to get some more heat.

As I mentioned earlier, there was quite a few parents with chicks there when we arrived – you could clearly hear a lot of chirping among the noises made by adults. If you were patient enough, you could also spot the parents carrying their chicks on top of their feet, under a layer of feathers on their bellies. Every now and then a chick would poke his head out to look around or even just to stretch.

The trick to keep them calm is also to stay in the upright position, either by standing, crouching or kneeling. This way, you look similar enough to another penguin (at least in terms of your body posture), and the penguins will come to you after a few minutes to look at you. As soon as you lie down, you must look like a seal and they turn around and run away from you!

We spent over an hour at the colony and I could have easily stayed there for a whole day or two at least, but it was time to go as it started getting late.

The one final obstacle was a difficult enough jumar up the 30m of rope. For some reason it was going much harder than I expected, so by the time I reached the top and managed to get myself over the edge, I was completely pumped out! The fact I was wearing a lot of down and that it was a relatively warm day didn’t help it – I was properly drenched!

We got back to the Skidoos and made our journey back to base. After refuelling and topping up the oil we came back on the modules, right in time for dinner! What a day!

Penguins Gallery

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