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Symphony on ice

Published : Jun 08, 2016 12:30 IST


The icy South Georgia island in the South Atlantic Ocean reverberates with the shrill call of penguins, the predominant wildlife species of the region. Text

IN the icy wilderness of South Georgia island, the British overseas territory in the sub-Antarctic region in the South Atlantic Ocean, the penguin is the king. Although the place abounds in other wildlife such as the albatross, the skua and various species of seals, the waddling wonders are the strongest attraction for Dr Jon Langeland, a rare wildlife photographer who ventures up to its shores. Penguins have a close affinity with human beings: they are sociable, they simply love to hang around, and they share an emotional bond with their chicks, beak-holding them until they are sure they can fend for themselves. The British wildlife film-maker David Attenborough described the adorable birds as little human beings with dinner jackets, or tuxedos.

Langeland, a medical doctor from Oslo, Norway, whose passion for wildlife photography has taken him around the world, including the polar regions, finds these flightless birds irresistible. In fact, the reverberations of the king penguin ( Aptenodytes patagonicus ) colonies of South Georgia excite his mind, he says. “What a unique rapport the penguins have built up even with strange people who intrude into their pristine habitats, fortified by the freshest air and the cleanest and coldest waters of the planet. To be with them even for a while is an incredible experience,” he told this writer when he visited Munnar in Kerala in March to photograph the endangered Nilgiri tahr in the high-altitude rolling grasslands.

Penguins do not feel threatened by people; perhaps they see humans as upright bipedal walkers like them. “This, the confidence they repose in human beings, stirred me very much. They appeared to greet us with their charismatic gestures and were seemingly fond of cameras. They looked delighted when photographed,” he said.

Langeland, who has cruised seven times to the Arctic Ocean to photograph the polar bear, the formidable predator of the Arctic wilderness ( Frontline , August 7, 2015), had a totally captivating experience with the penguins of South Georgia. “If only these birds could fly…,” he paused, with a sparkle in his eyes.

In fact, Langeland was fortunate to have many unusual frames capturing the birds’ varied moods and body language because they were ever ready to strike a pose at the sight of a camera. In November last year, he spent a week on the island, moving freely through 30 penguin colonies and enjoying the different patterns of the rookeries.

With its snow-capped mountains and icy surroundings, the 165-km-long island is a veritable fabled land. Langeland found the king penguin habitat visually and emotionally more overwhelming than the many wildlife sanctuaries he has visited in different continents, including Africa and the far-flung islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

There are no permanent residents in the British territory, which was formerly a whaling station. Scientists attached to the British Antarctic Survey, a research station for oceanography, geology and penguinology, among other things, and tourists come and go. The waters around the island are cold and rich in marine biodiversity. The low-pressure area experiences snowfall during all the seasons. The sky changes rapidly; the sun is passive mostly; and even in summer the weather is cold. The vegetation is limited to grasses. Rocks and pebbles are aplenty.

Giant icebergs and massive glaciers add lustre to the region’s beauty. The icebergs look like surrealist sculptures. Some playful penguins scale the icebergs and dive into the water. They sometimes spring up from the water and break into gymnastics.

Langeland’s mission was to photograph the penguins, from dawn to dusk. He trekked the different parts of the island with the help of guides, and what he learned from the exploration was soul-stirring. He was astounded by the way penguin parents identified their chicks. The stormy shores of the island were usually overcrowded with chicks and adults. A colony may sometimes have more than one lakh penguins. The most unusual behaviour of the penguin Langeland was able to study and record photographically is the feeding of the young one. A hungry chick, wandering amidst adult penguins, would make a sharp call. On hearing this, either of its parents would emerge from the sea with fish in its beak, and head for the rookery. Amidst the cacophony of shrills, it would be a challenge to identify one’s chick. Not for the parent penguin. The parent would stop, strains its ears and spot its young one by its distinct call. It would deftly avoid other hungry, open-mouthed chicks, to reach its young one. The chicks, whose diet includes fish, squid, krill and other crustaceans, grow fast. Penguins spend three fourths of their time in water, swimming to catch fish, their staple food.

The chicks are equally endowed with the capacity to respond only to their parents. Langeland recollected a curious episode to elaborate on his observation. He found an unrelated adult trying to force food into the mouth of a hungry chick. But the chick resisted the attempt and waddled off making it clear to the imposter that it knew its own mother. Langeland marvelled at the body language of the chick, which seemed to express in clear terms, “You are not my mother, go away”.

Marine animals

The massive elephant seals, each weighing up to four tonnes, leopard seals and fur seals are some of the important marine mammals on the island. The seals basking in the sun appear to be lazy and languid, but they can also get into a stiff fight. During the breeding season, the shore is taken up by the seals, and penguins will have to find another place to hang out. Penguins sometimes watch the seal fights with excitement.

There are about 80 species of birds on the island. The stately albatross, a bird with the largest wingspan, being the most prominent among them. The brown skua is a predator that raids the penguin nest for eggs. The skua even attack and kill penguin chicks for a hearty meal. The chicks, however, are adept at resisting the attacks. Seals are the other natural predators of penguin chicks.

Penguins usually have a pleasant manner. They look agitated only when they fail to locate their chicks in the rookery. They express excitement when they greet each other by bowing and trumpeting, and display moments of love. The male and female greet each other and then move together, reinforcing a bond. They are happy while feeding the chicks.

One of the most unforgettable scenes for a wildlife enthusiast is penguins huddling together when the winter is harsh. The birds stand as if glued to one another, their dense feathers providing the much-needed warmth. An amazing feature of emperor penguins ( Aptenodytes forsteri ), the largest among the 17 species of penguins, is that they breed in the extreme winter of Antarctica. They incubate a single egg by placing it on their feet and covering it with the feathers of the lower part of the abdomen, or brood pouch. After the egg hatches, the fledge is protected in the same manner. The macaroni penguin ( Eudyptes chrysolophus ), the crested bird with yellow-orange feathers (the bird derives its name from macaroni, the name given to the 18th century English dandy), climbs mountains and makes its nest among rocks and grasses. They occur in the sub-Antarctic region. King penguins, the second largest of the species, also incubate their eggs on their feet.

Langeland was witness to subtle emotions of love between penguin mates. The male and female touched each other with the points of their beaks, which signifies a kiss. Sometimes a male may touch the belly of a female with its beak to stimulate the female.

Penguins love to play at the shore. They wobble into the sea and flow back to the shore along with the receding waves.

It is rare to spot a lone penguin; the birds usually move in a group. Langeland said sometimes a male or female might drift from the group and stand by the side of a rock “contemplating or dreaming”. Penguins keep an upright position when they waddle or walk. They incubate the eggs for at least two months standing in an upright position throughout. They seldom lie down.

Langeland has photographed them resting on the ground, with face downwards. They adopt this posture even when they glide on the icy ground.

Species distribution

Penguins are mostly confined to the southern hemisphere. But the Galapagos penguin ( Spheniscus mendiculus )is found on the Galapagos islands in the Pacific Ocean and the African penguin, or jackass penguin, occurs in Namibia. The smallest penguin is the little penguin confined to New Zealand and Australia.

Four penguin species occur in South Georgia: king, macaroni, gentoo ( Pygoscelis papua ) and chinstrap ( P. Antarctica ). Kings have yellow orange patches on the sides of their heads and necks. Gentoos have white patches on the sides of their heads. The chinstrap has a white chin and white neck.

South Georgia was discovered by Anthony de le Roche, a merchant and voyager, in 1675. But he did not leave his footprints there. Captain James Cook landed in the island in 1775. Since then, many explorers are associated with the island, but Sir Earnest Shackleton, known for his Antarctic exploration, is the name one connects easily with South Georgia. His ship Endurance crashed into icebergs in 1917. But he miraculously escaped, trekked the snowy expanse of the island for several days and ate penguins and seals to stay alive. Later, he accomplished an open-boat voyage through the stormy ocean. He died in 1922 at the age of 48. His tomb is in Grytviken, a former whaling station on the island.

Attenborough immortalised the island in his short film Bachelor King . The film, shot in 2012, portrayed the romantic story of a bachelor king penguin that searched for and located a mate of his choice and raised a family. An unforgettable scene in the film is the one that shows penguins huddled around Attenborough, listening to him with rapt attention as he described South Georgia’s natural world.

Langeland flew down from Santiago in Chile to Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, from where he travelled to South Georgia on the only available ship. Although cruise ships operate in the region, Langeland sailed in a small vessel, which has the capacity to carry 50 people, and reached St. Andrew’s Bay after four days of arduous journey on rough seas covering a distance of 1,550 km. “But when we reached the island, we forget all the hardships. I watched the penguins throughout my stay there for a week photographing and enjoying the scenic beauty. On cannot resist the temptation of watching the penguins again and again. From the deck of the ship, one can spot sperm whales splash and roar.

Penguins have adapted themselves to the harsh environment of the frozen continent. But global warming and climate change have started to affect their ecosystem. Philip Trathan, head of Conservation Biology of the British Antarctic Survey, observed that the penguin population had declined over two decades as penguins were sensitive to climate change, which altered their habitats. For example, the distributional ranges of ice-obligate emperor and Adelie penguins ( Pygoscelis adeliae ) in the Antarctica have shifted polewards and contracted, while the ranges of ice-intolerant gentoo and chinstrap penguins have expanded. Disruption of penguins’ geographical distribution affects the body weight, breeding success and other aspects of the species. Habitat degradation and marine pollution are the main causes of global warming. According to Norman Ratcliffe, a prominent seabird ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey, during El Nino and South Annular Mode, sea ice is reduced. This affects the krill population. As a result, krill movement to South Georgia gets reduced, affecting penguins, which thrive on krill.

Tom Hart, head of Penguin Lifeline, a project of Oxford University, is working out conservation strategies. The project has been involved in genetical analysis to derive a complete picture of the threats to the penguin habitat.

Oblivious perhaps to the warming of the planet, penguins of the frozen South Georgia island huddle around to face another winter.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 24, 2016.)



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