Penguins and Seals, Seals and Penguins

20 Feb 2011

Brown Bluff, Antarctic Peninsula (63.5 S, 56W)
There is a debate of sorts between ornithologists about what is “cooler” – the thick-billed murre that breeds on cliffs in the Arctic or the penguin that makes its home in Antarctica. I’d say it’s a pretty close contest.

We landed on the beach beneath Brown Bluff early this morning, splashing up on the rocky shore to be greeted by hundreds of penguins and a large number of fur seals. The penguins, abandoned by their parents, are molting their first feathers and taking their first tentative steps into the frigid sea. The fur seals were lazing around, barking and shoving each other in displays to cranky territoriality. They also let us know in no uncertain terms if we got too close. I was charged by seals twice today. They are just saying get lost, this is my turf! When one of these two hundred kilo pinipeds lurches toward you (they have articulated flippers which allow them to move quickly on land), you get out of the way.

One of the many unique things about Antarctica is that these creatures are not afraid of humans. You hear about it but the experience of sitting amidst a flock of juvenile penguins, some of whom are curious enough to walk right up to you, cannot be described. We are conscious of our alien status here. Antarctic was not designed for human occupation, despite the presence of research bases and other activities. As some of the students said in video interviews we are conducting, Antarctica should simply be left alone.

Brown Bluff is surrounded by massive glaciers calving into the sea. The sun was shining. A pair of humpback whales, mother and calf, slipped silently beneath one of the zodiacs. Fur seals swam and played in the surf as the sun continued its arc in the northern sky (as opposed to the southern path it takes when viewed from the northern hemisphere).

We boarded the ship and passed around the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula through fields of massive icebergs. One was 10 storeys high and nearly a kilometre long. Watching the ice and glaciers slide passed, we headed south to Gourdin Island and another planned landing. The first zodiacs went out into the fog and soon radioed back a change of plans. There were too many penguins on the beach where we wanted to land so we were going to cruise instead.

It was striking how fast the face of Antarctica can change. The fog dropped down, the sea turned grey from the brilliant blue of the morning. The wind came up and there was a dampness in the air that chilled you no matter how many layers you put on. And this is still summer.

The screaming of gulls and storm petrels attracted our attention and we turned the zodiac towards the commotion. A leopard seal had killed a penguin and the birds were waiting for their share. Leopard seals are about three metres in length and weigh around 400 kilos. They are fearsome hunters and can literally flense a penguin with a few savage flips of their powerful jaws. Several flocks of penguins on their way back to shore after feeding at sea changed their plans when they realized they were heading straight into the jaws of a leopard seal.

The seals were also curious about our zodiacs and swam close. One offered ours a partially eaten penguin. It deposited the headless bird in our path and then backed off to watch what we would do. After a couple of minutes of gulls dropping down to peck at it while it floated in the swell, the seal returned and claimed its dinner. Other zodiacs had closer encounters with the leopard seals, including one that was inspected by an animal passing underneath and beside and finally smacked its flipper against the rubber pontoon. What this signal meant, we were left to guess.

Meanwhile, out in the grey waves, flocks of penguins continued to porpoise in to the shore, hoping that there was safety in numbers.


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