I have had a long and tumultuous relationship with penguins. For someone who has been around seabirds since they were a small child I should be in love with them completely shouldn’t I? That love should have no bounds.
Well that love is certainly existent now but it wasn’t always the case.
During the time I lived in Sydney from my late twenties to mid thirties, I became very used to Little Penguins. I saw them from the ferries on Sydney harbour and would sometimes watch them darting in the surf right next to my boogie board. For a long time I used to take delight in seeing them, that is, until I began working with them.
In my early thirties I started working alongside the longest continual study of the Wandering Albatross at sea in the world – the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA). While the principal aim of SOSSA’s work is to perpetuate a cohort study on albatrosses that has spanned more than fifty years, their work also involves seabird breeding island surveys along the coastal islands of New South Wales and I was lucky enough to be involved with these during the years of 2005 to 2007. I loved these expeditions. They gave me a glimpse into a world that so few people see. Public landings on these islands are expressly forbidden and through strict management, many of them are a wonderland for a wildlife photographer like me. Think deserted beaches, thousands of nesting seabirds, rocky outcrops, burrows everywhere, that wonderful cacophony of sound and that beautiful dank smell of seabirds – well I was just in heaven working on these islands. It was like living in one massive documentary 24/7.
The birds that formed the corner stone of our nesting surveys included Sooty Oystercatchers and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. We also made notes of other nesting birds including White-faced Storm Petrels, Australian Ibis, Australian Pelicans, Silver Gulls, Crested Terns and Little Penguins.
Of all the birds we worked with I found penguins to be the most feisty, attitude-filled critters imaginable. On the main island of the Five Islands off the coast of Wollongong, our base and research hut was a solar powered, converted shipping container (glamorous stuff this wildlife research!) and on one trip there we discovered that some Little Penguins had decided that under our hut was the perfect place to take up residence. During the breeding season, Little Penguins are very, very noisy and they are largely nocturnal! Their calls usually start at sunset and only stop around 5am when you need to get up and go to work so, needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan of their all-night love ins, many of which involved slapping each other around, biting each other and squabbling over burrow space. Penguins, well Little Penguins at least, do seem to like a bit of slap and tickle. I just wished sometimes that they had chosen to do their mating and dating somewhere else. Not even ear plugs would have worked with that amount of noise. I wasn’t impressed. Our days passed in a zombie like state as we struggled to feign tiredness to put in thirteen hour days of surveys.
During the day, we had protests. The slats of the balcony on the outside of our hut provided some much needed shade for moulting penguins who, during the time they actually do moult, require a significant amount of energy and they need to stay dry until their plumage becomes seaworthy again. Why not hang out in the well ventilated semi-shade of the hut balcony? This seemed to work quite well for the penguins until some ignorant humans rudely decided to turn up for morning tea and pull up their chairs to take a rest in the sun. Suddenly we were growled at! Obviously we were casting an unwanted shadow, some penguins didn’t like it and a series of very loud protestations ensued!!! My affections towards them began wearing thin.
Little Penguins are burrow nesters and their burrows are not dissimilar in size to those used by Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Accessing Shearwater chicks means you have to lie on your stomach on the ground, reach your arm down to the end of the burrow and hopefully you will find a fat, fluffy shearwater chick to band and weigh before taking a GPS read of its burrow location, releasing it and moving on. Down the occasional burrow your arm would feel something different to a Shearwater. Instead of a fat fluffy brown bird, you would get a nasty, nippy female penguin at the end and trust me, they are enough to make you withdraw your arm with the speed of lightning! In these cases I must confess that I didn’t blame the resident penguins for kicking up a fuss. I mean, deep down in a burrow, watching a grabbing arm reach in to feel around must have been terrifying for them. No wonder they got upset! I would too!
On one trip, I worked with a young assistant who had never been close to a penguin at all. Usually I would never pull a bird out of a burrow for the sake of demonstration but given the fact that Little Penguins are one of the few penguin species that are thriving, I decided to show him one. We set off around the island on foot and just when we went past one burrow entrance, we heard this blood curdling yowl. My assistant jumped back in shock and exclaimed that it sounded like someone was being murdered! I said “No, that’s a penguin” and decided, stupidly, that this might be the perfect opportunity to show him one. I reached in gently and pulled a wriggly, strong, adult male penguin out of his burrow. An animal that certainly wasn’t impressed at all by this action. Here he is:
Not a happy penguin. After my assistant got this shot of me and petted the penguin, I gently put him back because I hate stressing animals for no real reason and I really didn’t consider this to be a good reason. Off scurried the Little Penguin back into his burrow, or so I thought. He went back into the entrance of it and just as we stood up and turned around to leave, he came bolting out of his burrow and bit me hard on the back of my calf! I yelped! I am very used to handling these animals. I certainly didn’t hurt him. He was just being vindictive I think. It wasn’t a great way to win friends.
This altercation only served to tarnish my idea of them further until I finally went on to the islands during the penguin breeding season. Baby Little Penguins are an entirely different matter. Working with them during the peak of their breeding was pure joy. I had the privilege of holding chicks that were around a week old like this one
To nearly fledged adult birds like these
Then the tide and my attitude towards penguins began to turn. I fell in love with Little Penguin chicks as I watched them waiting at the entrance of their burrows for mum or dad to come back and feed them with a belly full of fish. It takes between eight and ten weeks from hatching to the time that young penguins will make their first run to the ocean. Over the time I was lucky enough to spend working with them, I met some that really melted my heart. Probably the most noted and unusual experience I had was finding a nearly fledged pair near the entrance of their burrow at the crown of Montague Island during the moult season. Their parents had abandoned them in favour of moulting as it seems they had left their run too late to breed. This is a highly unusual scenario for Little Penguins. I saw them and was quite shocked. When I came closer they were both emaciated from starvation. To this day it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, walking away from those two. You have to let nature play out its course on breeding islands. There is a lot of mortality on them and a lot of joy through births too but with these two I felt a real compulsion to tell someone to rescue them and feed them. You really can’t though. They would have probably died from the stress of handling them to get them back to the mainland into proper care. They were near death as it was. I cried.
Fast forward a few years to my 37th year of life and I found myself on board a Russian Icebreaker cruising due south to penguin central, the Australian Antarctic Territory of Macquarie Island, an island that is home to between three and five million penguins of three key species – Kings, Royals or Macaronis and Gentoos. There is a handful of Rockhoppers also living on Macquarie but they have a very restricted range there and they are not all that easy to see up close. Unlike the other penguins on Macquarie, the Rockhoppers are very shy. It was my first trip to Antarctica and I was thrilled to be going.
Arriving at Macquarie, we dropped anchor near the research station for the Australian Antarctic Division at Hasselborough Bay and we were instantly greeted by a welcoming party
Kings, Gentoos and Royals all came out to meet the boat, wondering what was new in their world. They swam around us endlessly. Each time I peered out of my porthole I saw them. I was mesmerised by their curiosity.
I think we may have dropped some scientists off at the research station during our stop but I was that distracted I don’t remember.
Later that day we steamed south along the coast to a place that has now become one of my most favourite in the entire world, Sandy Bay. Landing on Sandy is a bit tricky. While it sits in the lee of Macquarie and enjoys some relative calm from the relentless westerly winds and gigantic ocean swells, landing there presents you with a dilemma. The wildlife is so abundant on the beach that you have to approach slowly in an inflatable dinghy and a guide has to run the gauntlet of assembled penguins and elephant seal pups that have all gathered on the beach to investigate the newcomers. Thousands of penguins call Sandy Bay home and their main populations are dominated by Kings and Royals. I was in heaven.
For a while I wandered around with my then partner enjoying the sheer spectacle of it all. We wandered off to the main colony of King Penguins, many of whom had fluffy brown chicks.
which, to me anyway, were every bit as pretty in their own way as their parents
I quite liked the King Penguins that I first met. They were gently curious and would approach you to see what was happening, you’d turn around, they’d walk away and then they couldn’t resist the urge to turn around and look at you again. I was discovering the base rule that the bigger the penguin, the more gentle they become.
After prying myself away from the Kings, I decided to head down to the colony of Royals that take up a large proportion of the real estate on Sandy Bay’s pebble filled beach. I dumped my bag and tripod down close to their colony and realised that I’d dropped a lens cloth back at the King Penguin area. I wandered back up the beach to retrieve it, only to find a rather unusual scene unfolding with my gear when I got back.
Vandals had moved in!
They looked innocent enough
but never let those looks fool you. These were investigative tearaways who proceeded to inspect ALL of my gear. They pulled the elasticated clips on my bag back as far as they could and got shocked when they sprung back upon release. Pockets of bags were checked for goodies. The legs of my tripod were lifted
and were stared at when gravity didn’t do it’s normal thing and drop the leg down. The leg stayed in the air!
Amused by all of these antics, I sat and watched for a bit
but then I realised I need to swap lenses so I interrupted their play and went to sit beside them. This scattered them for a little bit until a couple of the bolder, younger birds determined I wasn’t a threat and they sidled over. Next minute the soles of my shoes were being sniffed, the pockets of my jackets were being inspected, one of them looked longingly at my lap trying to decide if it was going to be still and warm for long enough to grab a nap.
I wondered what to do to keep them amused. I was that beguiled by them I became frightened they would grow bored by me and leave so I picked up a pebble and gently held it out. I knew from prior research that some penguin species like pebbles and they give them as gifts. I even read about a great study on the Antarctic Peninsula where the scientists had painted pebbles many different colours to see if the penguins preferred one colour over another. What they found out was that many pebbles were both traded and stolen by individuals on their nesting grounds. It was a fantastic study.
As I held the pebble out, one young Royal approached
and very gently took the pebble out of my fingers. It then went away, dropped it, picked up another and brought it back to me.
I opened my hand out and a gift was dropped in to my palm. It was one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me in the field. I was in love.
Although the rules surrounding the removal of items from Macquarie are strict, I collected the pebble and said “Thank you” and put it in the pocket of my backpack.
When I got back to mainland Australia, I had it mounted into a necklace
These days when people ask me about the pebble I usually just tell them it was a gift. In my eyes anyway, it was.
With that gentle exchange, my love affair with penguins began and since then I have been blessed to work with many different species of them around the world including Yellow-eyed Penguins in New Zealand and on the Auckland Islands.
Rockhopper Penguins on Heard Island
Gentoos on Macquarie Island
King Penguins underwater on Macquarie
and in the snow on Heard Island
Snares Crested Penguins on the Snares Islands
and most recently with African Penguins on Robben Island, Boulders Beach and Simon’s Town in South Africa.
I have never had any “Happy Feet” ideas about these animals but what started off with ambivalence and even disdain with me, has evolved into unbridled respect. Common to all penguins is a phenomenal physical strength. I’ve watched rafts of little penguins battling huge swells in the open ocean to feed and seen them take high dives off rocky islets in Tasmania. I’ve worried as I’ve seen them try to launch onto rocks in humongous swell, thinking they were going to get injured, only to see them pick themselves up and waddle off after being smashed against rocks. No doubt I will meet other species of penguins during my lifetime but I am constantly delighted by penguins now – even those little yapping ones that run after you and bite you!