Antarctica: The White Continent
Although Antarctica is a vast polar desert, the surrounding ocean supports an array of marine life and seabirds, including both migratory and resident whale species as well as several types of penguins. These waters produce more food sources than any other sea, even surpassing coral reefs, and attract whales from all around the globe to migrate here and take advantage of the rich feeding opportunities. Also, beneath the waves lie innumerable cold water adapted fish and invertebrate species. This abundant undersea life provides sustenance to the animals on the surface and on Antarctica’s coast, which would not survive without these productive seas.
Our boat was docked next to Half Moon Island, which is a small piece of land in the South Shetland Islands and home to a sizeable colony of chinstrap penguins. Later, a small zodiac took us closer to the shore where a vast group of adult penguins was nesting along the rocky slopes. The steep incline of the slopes, which the penguin’s traverse daily, forces one to appreciate the challenges they endure while caring for their chicks.
After arriving at the base of the colony, I sat down on the ice near a path the penguins take from the sea to their nests. Between feeding their chicks and tidying up their nests, the penguins eventually walked right past me. Some stopped and investigated my bright orange parka before continuing on their journey back to their nest or their ocean hunting grounds. I got lower to the ground to watch these penguins as they went about their daily lives. Once they no longer felt curious about my presence, they became oblivious to me.
First, I noticed that the adult penguins on the nest would call out every so often, and their neighbors would join the chorus. Some lazy penguins would avoid finding their own rocks for nest building and take the opportunity to steal nest building stones from other calling birds. When one parent returned from the sea, they reunited briefly with the other adult in a beautiful dance before swapping roles and giving the other bird a chance to go out to the water. Following this protocol helps them conserve valuable energy and share difficult tasks. Just by sitting and watching these penguins, I learned more about how they care for one another and help their chicks reach adulthood.
The chinstrap penguins, who were an absolute pleasure to watch, seemed to be flourishing as they were continuously returning from the sea, but after learning about their decrease on Half Moon Island, I had different thoughts. Expert naturalists on our ship estimated that the colony had decreased by about 70% in just two years. Most likely, this decrease was caused by a lack of food. The suddenness of this decline is chilling. Eventually, these birds will no longer be able to survive in this area and have to move closer to viable feeding grounds. The good news is that chinstraps are thriving in other parts of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, where temperatures are more favorable for the penguins’ preferred prey.
Orcas and Humpbacks
I was about to take a nap and rest up from a long, active, penguin-watching morning when I heard “killer whales” over the loudspeaker and forgot about sleep. I leaped out of bed, grabbed my camera and headed up to the bow. Off in the distance, I could barely see a male orca’s breath spout or his tall black fin. I had seen orcas before in Iceland, Alaska, and Coastal Argentina, but Antarctic orcas are special, not only for their cold water adaptations but also for their remarkable hunting strategies.
When we finally approached the animals, approximately 30 orcas surfaced within the span of a few seconds. Some younger orcas played and spun on their backs, and other older orcas fed on fish as they went around in circles picking off prey that strayed from the school. Larger orcas eat whales, but the pescatarian orcas would generally have no reason to interact with large whales. After observing these animals for several minutes, two, larger whales surfaced among them. The mother and calf humpback whale had come to this cold but nutrient-rich part of the world to feed on vast swarms of krill and small fish, but these whales are typically alone, as they want to take full advantage of all feeding opportunities.
On this occasion, however, the orcas were swimming right beside the whales. At first, the interaction looked like the orcas were harassing the whales, but experts on board suspected the orcas took advantage of a feeding opportunity. The humpbacks became uneasy, and they began showing defensive sideswipes and tail slaps, reminding the orcas how powerful they are. We have no way of proving this theory because this interface between humpback whales and pescatarian orcas has not been thoroughly documented by scientists and is quite rare. Nevertheless, this experience became the highlight in Antarctica due to the majesty of the species interacting with each other, the close proximity with which we could observe it, and the rarity of this behavior. Antarctica’s reputation as a wildlife biodiversity hotspot certainly exceeded our expectations.