Happy feet on life’s highway
“There’s a delay down there,” I’m warned as I leave the Penguin Post Office at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula. Descending our human highway towards the Zodiacs I see what he means: a traffic jam on the penguin highway where it intersects our route. On either side we wait patiently in our survival jackets and clumsy boots.
A dozen or so gentoos are shuffling in dithery circles, or standing still, clearly in the throes of a “why am I here?” moment. Those heading down to the sea are wondering if they’ve given enough instruction to their spouse back on the nest; those returning from fishing are debating whether there’s enough food in their gullets to satisfy the little squawkers back home.
Spring arrives suddenly in the Antarctic, followed by a brief summer. There is so much to do, and so little time to do it. Gentoo, chinstrap, Adelie and emperor penguins must haul themselves out of the icy waters where they spent the winter, return to their nesting spots, find their mate from previous years or seek a new one. There is a nest to build, a brief courtship to enjoy, and a precarious mating. Millions of hopeful parents throng the areas of exposed rock. Billions of pebbles must be piled into functional pyramids. Every penguin in the vicinity is potentially a thief who’ll steal a pebble as soon as blink.
Mating is a scrabble of wills; getting the anatomy best positioned is complicated by slippery backs, ungainly paddle feet, sliding pebbles, and the unwanted attention of opportunistic neighbours and murderous skuas. The next few weeks are a race against time and adversity: hatching two eggs, satisfying fledglings’ voracious appetites, and helping them develop independent living skills before winter, when the unprepared will perish.
I stand, caught up in the wonder of it all. Then suddenly this fractured moment in a maelstrom of hectic activity resolves. Those whose job it is to take over nest duties shake off their indecision and waddle up the narrow path. Those who must fill their gullets with nutritious krill stride downhill. We humans wait for a space to open across the intersection and return to our ship. Send your 400-word contribution with your name and postal address to: [email protected]tralian.com.au. Columnists will receive a hardback copy of New Zealand Wine by Warren Moran, a guide to key winemakers and wine regions; $75. More: hardiegrant.com.au.