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.

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