Acres of Adelie penguins

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Acres of Adelie penguins

Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst is on an Antarctica cruise with Abercrombie & Kent.

“Look,” I said, “dolphins.”

But of course, they weren’t dolphins, they were penguins.  We were in Antarctica, after all, aboard the Ponant ship Le Lyrial, anchored off a stony beach beneath a steep cliff called Brown Bluff.

About 30 yards off the stern of our ship, a handful of Adelie penguins were engaged in the activity penguin experts call “porpoising,” for obvious reasons.

They were the first penguins I had ever seen outside of a zoo, but they were not going to be the last.

The Adelies came to Brown Bluff to mate, incubate eggs and hatch chicks, two per mating pair. The ornithology expert on our ship estimated that the colony on the beach we were about to explore had upwards of 20,000 penguins.

They were stretched up the beach from our landing zone. It seemed like a few had come to greet us, moving in their distinctive waddle, wings thrust behind them for balance, as we swung out of the Zodiacs and moved ashore.

There actually were two types of penguins on the beach. The slightly larger Gentoo penguins were also present, in much smaller numbers. But the prime attraction was the Adelies and their chicks.

On our way down the beach, we observed the comical phenomenon that happens when a passel of Adelies get the notion to go swimming. A group of 50 or 60 start to bunch together at the shoreline, no one quite willing to go first. Then one gets nudged by the others and soon everyone is taking the plunge and the group is in the water. 

We looked up, far above us, to the top of Brown Bluff, maybe 1,500 to 2,000 feet in elevation. The small specks of white gliding against the brown rock are snow petrels, we are told -- one of only three birds, including the Adelies and emperor penguins, to breed exclusively in Antarctica.

When we arrived at the main concentration of Adelies, it was black and white as far as the eye can see. Each penguin maintains a territory about pecking distance from the others. 

We were right in the middle of hatching season. Some parents were still guarding eggs, while others had newly hatched chicks to tend.

With the help of the guide team from Abercrombie & Kent, we’re able to see the small puffs of feather that sit between the legs of the parents. It is summer in Antarctica, but the new chicks still need the warmth of their parents to survive.

Some of the Adelies are curious about us and wander close, one within a few feet. The guides tell us to make way because we’re not supposed to impede the penguins from going where they wish.

I get lucky and see an isolated penguin tobogganing, a maneuver in which they tip onto their white chests and scoot downhill on their bellies with their feet for propulsion. It looks like fun.

A reminder that it’s not all fun and games -- a brown skua lands on a nearby rock. It is a heavy bird with the appearance of a gull and the nature of a hawk. The skua looks around for an egg or a chick to eat, but it soon flies off unsatisfied.

We spent 90 minutes watching penguins, which is enough for now. It gets cold after a while, and there will be more opportunities for penguin watching before we leave.

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