Antarctica: the Emperor's new clothes

At five thirty in the morning, while still hovering in a dream, I hear a familiar voice: “Penguin team, penguin team, penguin team… this is Jerry…” I turn off the radio I keep on the shelf above my head so Tom, the marine technician whose shift ends at midnight and sleeps in the bunk underneath, doesn’t wake up. I know why Jerry is calling: we are travelling through ice not far from Terra Nova Bay, in Emperor penguin territory. If we see birds on stable ice floes, we agreed with the captain and the other scientists, we would go out to tag them with satellite transmitters. I know the drill as we’d had an unsuccessful attempt last week (my lesson learned was not to forget to put on a second layer of long fleece underwear, as my legs and my behind almost froze off while traveling in the zodiac).


A half hour later we are ready to go; we look like astronauts in orange suits with silly ski masks (to protect our eyes against the penguins’ sharp beaks). I help Julia, the other marine technician, start the outboard engine because it seizes a bit when it’s cold, and then the rest of the “penguin team” jumps on board. I realize I’m overdressed: it’s a beautiful Antarctic morning with not a whisper of katabatic winds, so it’s getting steamy inside my polar outfit.

The emperor stands on an ice floe as large as a tennis court, some 200 meters away. It doesn’t sound like much, 200 meters, but when you have to break through tons and tons of new sea-ice with a small zodiac, going back and forth through leads that seem promising but trap you in a death squeeze, and you have to pry off with a plastic oar large chunks of ice stuck in the propeller, this short distance seems insurmountable. It is also a good test of character to try to control our back-seat driver’s urge to tell Julia where the best route is.

For Jerry, we have a 50-50 chance of capturing the penguin, but that’s counting from the moment we set foot on the ice. As we inch our way forward our hearts are racing. We all keep our eyes on the emperor, who stands with poise, his chest upright, and his gaze fixed on the horizon. He seems absorbed in thoughts, probably of internal penguin affairs.

As we are covering the last meters, Jerry readies his long penguin “crook” (a stainless steel hook with rubber lining to catch the penguin without hurting it) and assumes a stalker’s pose. I am not sure what to do; it is my first encounter with an emperor.

When the zodiac finally touches the ice Jerry leaps forward and… slips. With a graceful slide he enters the scene. The bird is now focused on us, wondering what those funny orange things with big white flippers are doing on his private floe. Mr. Emperor has two enemies: killer whales and leopard seals. Anything else is probably a friend. He looks puzzled at Jerry, who has just recovered his balance. What does he want? A place to rest? Maybe he just likes my outfit? I just finished my molt and have a brand new black, white and orange coat. It shines and if he gets close enough he’ll see the beautiful bluish streaks on my black feathers.

But Jerry wants something else. He is a scientist and scientists want data. He slowly walks towards the penguin and then, with a quick lunge, throws the crook around him. Now there is panic: the bird swiftly wiggles his way out while Jerry slips again on the ice. I jump out of the zodiac to help my companion. The emperor, instead of plunging in the water decides to cross the entire length of the floe. He does this by “tobogganing”, sliding on his belly while pushing himself forward using paddling motions with his flippers and pushing with his feet. It is a more effective way to move on hard ice than walking upright, especially when you have bunny boots on!

There isn’t much time left before the penguin reaches the edge of the floe. In a mad dash forward I cover a few meter before slipping and falling flat on my back. I stand up and in a desperate move fuelled by adrenaline and foolishness, plunge forward like a goalkeeper and manage to grab the emperor by his waist. The bird is strong and gives me solid slaps in the face with his flippers, then slips out of my arms like a bar of soap. Gone is the emperor in the dark, frozen waters of the Ross Sea… With my clumsy nylon mitts I stood no chance! We feel quite distraught but not so the rest of the ship. Crew and scientists, all have witnessed (and photographed) the debacle and are laughing heartily! Some are even making “thumbs down” signs to us. How frustrating!

But the penguin team doesn’t give up that easily! We know there are other penguins in the area; we saw them from the bridge of our ship (the “Palmer”). So we radio the captain and ask him if he can lead us to another emperor. The large bulk of the icebreaker starts to move, its powerful propeller blowing the ice away, creating a large lead for us to navigate through.

A mile further, the ship comes to a halt. We are now close to the second penguin that, like the one we missed, has just finished his molt. We know this because his coat looks shiny and new and also because he is skinny. Emperor penguins fast during the month-long molt, as they cannot get in the water to feed while their feathers are being replaced. So, at the end of the fast they have lost half their body weight.

Julia maneuvers the zodiac around the Palmer’s stern then guns the boat towards the floe where the penguin stands. Again, the dense sea ice makes our progression difficult. This bird seems more aware of us than the first one; he might be harder to catch too! I think I’ll take off my mitts this time, to make sure I have a better grip, and I’ll follow Jerry like his shadow.

When the zodiac reaches the floe, we both jump off. We slowly walk towards the emperor; Jerry ahead, me right in his heals. When we are close, Jerry throws the crook and ensnares the bird. The emperor leaps forward and frees himself, but the crook put him off balance, leaving just enough time for me to do my goalkeeper’s trick. I grab him by his feet and hold him firmly. The bird squawks, he’s not happy, but he can’t go anywhere.

Gitte and Kim, two other penguin team members, arrive quickly and help me control him. They are real pros and know what to do. First thing is to put a felt hood on the penguin’s head, to reduce stress. I have to restrain him so I hold him against my chest, with his head gently tucked under my right arm. Jerry and Gitte put the harness on so we can lift and weigh him. He is indeed very skinny: only 22 kg! I can see his brand new feathers; he must be getting ready to feed again. But not before we glue a satellite transmitter onto his back that will tell us how he forages (how often and how deep he dives) and where his breeding colony is.

Gitte applies super-glue to a small patch of feathers to make them hard, then passes cable ties underneath to attach the instrument to the Emperor’s new coat. Hopefully, it will stay on his back for several months so, unknowingly, he’ll reveal us his secrets. Then, with the next molt, the transmitter will fall off. During the entire operation, which lasted an hour or so, I keep thinking how beautiful this bird is, how adapted his body is to the extreme environment of Antarctica, and also how much stronger he must be when he’s well fed!

I’m getting ready to release him. I feel happy and sad, because I know I’ll never see him again. Jerry takes the hood off while everybody walks away to give him space. When I let him go the emperor takes three steps and relaxes. He looks at us, motionless, with his familiar, imperial poise. What are we doing here? Yes, we should go now, leave the Emperor in peace. While heading towards the Palmer I can’t help but look back at him. He is gone. Undeterred, life in the Ross Sea follows its course.