Hidden Lives of Emperor Penguins
Despite being the first emperor penguin colony discovered in 1902 during Scott’s Discovery Expedition (1901–1904) little is known about the at-sea behavior of emperor penguins from Cape Crozier. The first scientific expedition to study them was in 1911, when a small group from Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition team made the perilous journey to the colony in the winter to collect eggs. Since this early study, most research at the Crozier colony has involved counting the birds to monitor the population. In the Fall of 2019, we headed to Cape Crozier to study the foraging ecology of one of the southernmost emperor penguin colonies, and after two years of delays due to the Covid pandemic, we are excited to be returning to Cape Crozier this year to complete the study. We hope that you will follow along on our adventure as we prepare for the fieldwork, travel to Antarctica to study the birds, and analyze the data. We look forward to sharing with you new discoveries about the ecology of the emperors of the ice.
Emperor penguins, the largest species of marine birds, are an abundant year-round predator in the Antarctic ecosystem. Like other predators, they are vulnerable to environmental change that impacts ecosystem productivity: these changes permeate through the food web and modify foraging behavior, and ultimately survival and reproduction. Despite their importance in the Ross Sea ecosystem, relatively little is known about Ross Sea emperor penguins’ foraging ecology and habitat use. Developing a comprehensive understanding of these metrics for penguins in the Ross Sea is imperative for predicting how climate change will impact emperor penguin populations and foraging ecology, and understanding the impacts of these changes on the Ross Sea ecosystem.
To understand their role in the ecosystem and how this may shift with environmental change, it is imperative to learn what food sources are important to them and how hard they have to work to get a meal. Our collaborative project is investigating the foraging ecology and habitat use of Ross Sea emperor penguins during late chick-rearing, an energetically challenging phase of the life cycle when parents must meet the demands of their rapidly growing chicks. We will tag the penguins with dataloggers (small electronic devices) to find out where they go in the ocean and how deep they dive to find food. Additionally, we will be measuring how many calories they need and collecting guano samples (poop) to learn more about their diet. This study will fill important knowledge gaps on the energy balance, diet, and habitat use of emperor penguins during this critical time.
Additionally, while our focus is on emperor penguin foraging ecology, this project is part of a large-scale project, “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective?” This collaborative project’s goal is to characterize the Ross Sea Ecosystem as it is now (baseline) and develop and apply methods that can measure long-term changes for the purpose of testing Marine Protected Area effectiveness.
Funding and logistical support
This is an internationally collaborative project with funding and logistic support provided by the National Science Foundation (CAREER Grant #: 1943559), Antarctica New Zealand, and funding provided to NIWA as part of the project “Ross Sea Research and Monitoring Programme: is the world’s largest MPA effective” (New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment).
Permit for penguins in snow storm: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2011−016).
Penguin going in water with tag on: US Antarctic Treaty Permit (2013-006).
Do you ever have those dreams where you’re juuussssst about to do something incredible, but then suddenly wake up? That’s sort of what every day of the last month has been like while waiting to hear if our research team is, in fact, deploying to Antarctica. In truth, we still don’t really know if the ice will be stable enough to safely live and work on, but for now we are at least half-way to our dream field-season studying emperor penguins at Cape Crozier in Antarctica.
The waiting period has kept us on the edge of our seats with numerous moving parts that could cancel our plans. A big priority, and one that we could at least do something about from home, was to avoid contracting Covid-19. Our team has been in a self-imposed quarantine for the last month (thank goodness for furry companions and HBO!) to make sure that the lingering global pandemic would not stand in our way again. In 2020, New Zealand closed its doors to outsiders in hopes of waiting out the covid storm, and our research along with many other Antarctic projects was put on hold. A year later our plans were postponed yet again due to the long backlog of isolated researchers eager to leave their desks and get back to work in Antarctica. This year, we had priority but still feared delay due to positive covid tests.
Perhaps the most torturous part of the self-imposed quarantine, was waiting for our GO/NO GO date two weeks before departure to New Zealand (the Antarctic deployment hub) and not knowing whether all our efforts where futile. While you might think the penguin team would be getting better at waiting to return to our huddle at Cape Crozier, this could not be farther from the truth. Several days past the GO/NO GO date, we had heard nothing about our fates, but had acquired some promising images of the sea ice around Cape Crozier. Sadly, some of our colleagues working in McMurdo Sound had already been canceled due to unstable ice conditions, but with the satellite images, we began to feel hopeful that the ice at Cape Crozier was in good shape. Our team leader, Gitte McDonald, explained that all the “muddy” looking ice was a great indication that our penguin friends had initiated their breeding season in April, and had likely been happily pooping away and staining the ice ever since. Poopy ice, means stable ice. Eventually, we received communication that a helicopter wasn’t available to confirm our hypothesis, but that we should at least plan to proceed to New Zealand.
The next hurdle was that we were scheduled to leave the following week but hadn’t received any flight tickets. With so many people returning to the ice and the busiest season yet, the logistics support teams had been working overtime to coordinate flights and we hadn’t risen to the top of the list yet. Three days before our team had already packed bags and repacked them many times (okay let’s be honest, I think I was the only one packing multiple times), my computer in the adjacent room audibly blinged letting me know an email was waiting. Could it finally be the email we’d been waiting for since 2020? Were we going to Antarctica?
While the past 233 email messages I received elicited a drop-everything-and-run to the computer response, including my favorite mug and my iPad (R.I.P.), this time was different. I told myself it could not be the Antarctic program, not at this time of night and not after not hearing anything since early this last summer. I gently placed the valuable items I had in my hands down and slowly made my way to the computer where my inbox read:“Scheduled flight to Christchurch New Zealand tomorrow October 8th” – US Antarctic Program (USAP).”
My jaw dropped – we were leaving in 24 hours! I felt absolutely elated but tempered with a healthy dose of panic as I repacked my bag for the last time and condensed all my pre-departure chores into half the time I’d anticipated. But finally, we are that much closer to going to Antarctica!
The next day our team met at a central location in Santa Cruz to wait for our Uber shuttle to the San Francisco (SFO) airport. As our bags aggregated on the curb, our Uber to the airport canceled last-minute and we executed our backup plan. Our new hero, Jenny (a longtime friend of Gitte and an experienced Antarctic researcher), crammed all of us and our gear into her 2008 Tundra and rushed us over Highway 17 to SFO. With tickets and passports in hand and carry-on bags full of our science tools (dataloggers, power cords, multiple computers…oh my…) we boarded our plane to Auckland, New Zealand. After a bumpy 13-hour flight across the Pacific we landed in Auckland and made our way through customs. Maybe not everyone finds customs to be fun, but I love it, especially when they tear apart my meticulously packed bag to find all the science treasures inside. This time customs left all my gear as it was.
As we exited customs we heard: “Birgitte McDonald, Caitlin Kroeger, and Parker Forman……last call for flight A567 to Christchurch the Gate will be closing in 17 minutes”.
With the speed of penguins being chased by a pod of killer whales, some luck, one lost water bottle in transit, a whole lot of perspiration, and running (literally, running) on fumes, the penguin team made our connecting flight to Christchurch with one minute to spare. Now in Christchurch, a city located on the southern tip of New Zealand’s larger island and the hub for many traveling to Antarctica, we are patiently waiting for our flight to Antarctica.
After many years waiting the penguin team is almost there!
As trying as it was to get to New Zealand, getting to Scott Base proved even more challenging. I know it is obnoxious to bemoan any means of getting here when we have the immense privilege of getting here in the first place, but my knees and hydration level still haven’t recovered from one of the more unpleasant flights of my life, so that’s what’s on my mind.
After a 24-hour delay due to a broken C-17, our second attempt to get to Antarctica was full of hope and anticipation. We arrived at the USAP Antarctic terminal, checked our bags, stepped on the scales with all our gear, went through security, waited outside for the bus that was to ferry us to the plane and juuuust before boarding the bus, were told to go back to the terminal and wait. Flight canceled. Two days later another flight was scheduled and we finally made it on the plane!
Once aboard the NZ Air Force’s Boeing 757, the pilot told us over the loudspeaker that we should expect a 4-hour 50-minute flight and that 1 hour and 20 minutes before landing in Antarctica we would have to put on our ECW (extreme cold weather clothes) as we would be past “the point of no return” after which he said we’d be landing in Antarctica whether it be on the ice or in the ocean. A few hours into our flight we began to see gorgeous formations of sea ice coating the ocean – jagged pancakes and crackles of ice everywhere. Windows are a huge perk of flying on the 757. Soon we even spotted snow saturated island somewhere off the coast of Antarctica and shortly after that we got the message to gear up -- cheers of elation reverberated through the cabin as we knew we’d finally be landing in Antarctica.
Sea ice and Antarctica from the plane
Within 20 minutes the elation and cheers turned to moaning and grumbling as we realized no one was turning down the cabin temperature and we were all wearing gear meant to keep us alive in -70 C weather. Beads of sweat began to well on our foreheads. I looked at Gitte, our leader, whose head was pressed against the seat in front of her, desperately trying not to lose her lunch in the suffocating heat. Another 10 minutes passed and the pilots voice rang out again “we are turning around due to fog, and should have just enough fuel to get back to Christchurch”. What?! Aren’t we 30 minutes beyond the point of no safe return!? And did he say *fog*?! Surely this plane can land in a little bit of fog?? We were stunned. The only silver lining was getting to take off the ECW. To top things off, we actually didn’t have enough fuel and had to land in Invercargill, where we had to sit on the plane in our ECW boots for an extra hour. Workers on the runway were taking photos of our plane as our boomerang 30 minutes past the point of no return was unheard of and I don’t think anyone there had ever seen a 757 land on that runway. The icing on the cake was landing in Christchurch and hearing the flight attendant say, “Welcome to Christchurch. We hope you all had a pleasant flight.”
After some madness for the logistics team sorting out hotels in a very busy town with hundreds of people slated to go to Antarctica and backed up for days, we were told we’d get on a plane in 2 day’s time. We all woke at 5 am that day to a call that it was canceled due to weather. Rescheduled for 2 days later we got the go-ahead and made it onto the bus, but just outside the plane we were told we’d have to wait 2 hours for a minor mechanical issue to be sorted out. At this point I think we had all lost faith. They shuffled us into the Air Force waiting room and at some point, I took a nap under a table. It sounded unpromising, but we did eventually board the plane and against the odds we finally make it to Antarctica – drenched in sweat and sick with heat exhaustion -- but happy to step onto the ice and fill our lungs with crisp cold air. It was all entirely worth it.
View of Scott Base from a helicopter
Life at Scott Base is fairly comfortable and homey. It’s a largish, boxy looking facility with long heated hallways with ramps and stairs connecting the various buildings and felt like a maze when we first arrived. It was very easy to get lost the first few days and accidentally wander into a cargo room or someone else’s sleeping corridor. Everyone here has been extremely friendly and genuinely excited to see new faces and help out the confused new scientists running around. There is a culture of mutual appreciation between the scientists and the teams of people that make it possible for us to do our work. There are so many logistics that go into each project and all the projects are so varied. Electricians, mechanics, field logistic support crews, cargo crews, flight crews, engineers, communications specialists, field trainers, chefs, and people that keep the place clean, warm, and livable. It’s been a pleasure getting to know them and we certainly couldn’t do any of our work without them.
My favorite part of Scott Base (other than the people) is the fact that there are nearly 5 meals a day that are all incredible. We are offered the typical breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but also “smoker” which comes between the three meals and consists of coffee or tea accompanied by tasty snacks – like toast smothered in cheese, tomato, and bacon. The chefs are also so thoughtful and accommodating with dietary issues, which has been critical for some of us!
My other favorite part, is that just outside base you can walk along pressure ridges where the sea ice bumps up against land and creates beautiful ice sculptures. Of course, you have to have had proper field training first, must always sign out and back in to avoid a search and rescue, and must bring a radio to signal when you’ve transitions onto and off of the sea ice for safety purposes. It’s a lot of work just to go for a 30-minute walk, but it’s worth it! Not only is the scenery gorgeous, but it’s a place where Weddell seals nudge their way through cracks and thinner ice to haul out on thicker slabs of snowy ice to give birth to their pups. On our last walk around the pressure ridges we counted 9 seals and 3 pups.
Weddell seal along the pressure ridges hike in front of Scott Base with view of Mt. Erebus in the distance.
There aren’t too many downsides to being at Scott Base, which is good since we got stuck here longer than intended due to delayed cargo and the delayed arrival of the Antarctic New Zealand helicopter (our means of transportation to the penguin colony where we camp and work). The only real negative I can come up with is the extremely dry air which leads to itchy eyes, dry skin, nasal congestion and random large shocks of static electricity every time you touch metal. Which is a lot! The trick is to touch metal as consistently as possible while walking anywhere to discharge the static, and everyone looks like they’ve got a compulsive tick to tap things constantly. And we do, or else we suffer the consequences!
To be able to do literally anything outside beyond the border of the base, each person has to complete Antarctic field training. As I was the only new comer in our group, I was the only one who had to complete the full 2-day course. The training started with a power point on team work and safety (like how to spot frost nip and prevent frost bite) and a notable a video of a large all-terrain amphibious vehicle called a Hägglund falling through an ice crack into the sea, looking like one of the worms from Dune had just swallowed it whole. It’s an image I will never unsee.
Next, we went over the contents of survival bags, learned how to start Primus stoves in cold temperatures with a flint, and how to make up sleep and kitchen kits. We gathered everything we would need for the evening, including fuel, pee bottles, a poop bucket and other supplies like shovels and snow saws. Then we got in a Hägglund (you can imagine our fear) and drove out across the sea ice to the field training camp situated in an area that was flagged as “safe”.
We learned how to set up Scott tents so that they wouldn’t blow away in the wind and how to secure them down with snow after digging the poles into the snow. Then we learned how to build an ice kitchen. Some of the crew decided to try their hand at building an emergency shelter, which involved cutting a coffin sized rectangle out of the snow, then cutting larger blocks of snow to put over the coffin. As the only woman of 8 people, I was quite happy when my tent mate decided to try his luck and sleep in it for the night. That made peeing into a bottle at night much easier in the comfort of my tent!
After getting the kitchen up and running, we melted snow on the stove and each had a meal of dehydrated food (beef curry for me). During the 10 minutes that it required to rehydrate we put the bags in our jackets to help keep us warm, and to keep the food from freezing. It wasn’t bad! But anything that returns your body temperature to a tolerable degree is going to be amazing! I was pretty surprised at how quickly I got cold when not moving. It was a delicate balance between doing work at a pace that wouldn’t make you sweat, but doing enough to stay warm. My hands got the coldest while shoveling snow, despite the gloves I wore, but pausing to warm them up from time to time kept them functional.
After dinner we got in the Hägglund again and went for what would be a “sun downer”, if the sun actually went down, up at Castle Rock. The view was gorgeous – Mt Erebus to the south, the expanse of McMurdo sound to the west, and Mt Terror to the east. We soaked in the view as long as possible before the windchill forced us back down the hill to our vehicle and back to camp.
We got lucky with a calm night and I managed to sleep pretty well in my double sleeping bag with a fleece liner atop a 4-inch fleece thermarest and sheepskin. We all survived the night – including my brave former tent-mate. After a chilly morning tea (so chilly that hot water flung into the air instantly froze into a puff of ice crystals), we packed up and headed out having all survived our first night camping in Antarctica.
When we returned, we went around and shared the “things that rocked” and the “things that would stick” with us – a general consensus was that the teamwork rocked (and was essential) and things that stuck involved making sure to warm up as soon as any coldness set in. Having a spare pair of socks for sleeping in was something that really stuck for me (my feet sweat and mine got wet!), but on reflection, and on a less practical note, what really stuck was the sound of the snow as people walked across it. It sounded like walking on Styrofoam. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt or heard before as I’ve never walked on snow in temperatures so cold that all the crystals remain frozen and very squeaky as they shift around under your weight.
Given that we had no internet and limited power at Cape Crozier for 4 weeks, we’re going to give a short and sweet, highlight filled recap because we were too busy to write a weekly blog.
Twinkling air crystals
On day one, 5 helicopter flights from Scott Base took our team, all our gear, and some support personnel out to help us set up camp. With help we got all our tents up and secured to the sea ice (using a fancy drill to create rope anchors into the ice called v-threads) in one day. We dug our sleeping tents into the snow to protect it from the wind and one of the most spectacular things about the whole day was watching suspended ice crystals sparkling in the air as we set up camp. At first, I thought I was having a stroke and nearly panicked, but once I realized other people were seeing it too, my panic turned into pure wonder and delight. I can only guess that the snow-shoveling mixed with winds from the helicopter must have stirred up the enchanting sight. But maybe there is another more scientific explanation, or perhaps it was just pure magic.
Our sea ice field camp nestled in a crook of the ice shelf. A polar dome tent for each of us to sleep in, a big blue polar haven for staying warm (where we processed samples, worked on laptops, and cooked our meals), and a Scott tent affectionately known as the poogloo for… well you can guess.
Chunks of ice to navigate
300,000 Adelie penguins
Yes, we were there to study emperor penguins, BUT… one of the most impressive things about Cape Crozier is the 300,000 Adelie penguins breeding on the side of Ross Island just opposite our field camp on the sea ice. You could hear the cacophonous humming of their mating calls from camp and see a whole hillside covered in guano and little black and white penguin specks. The first few days in camp we had a field trainer with us that was there to ensure we were set up for safety and success and he took us on an amazing and terrifying (to me, the novice) adventure across the sea ice to Ross Island. The point of the mission was to show us how to safely move across the sea ice transition zone onto land should there be any sort of emergency (like the sea ice starting to break out). We were shown how to drill into the sea ice to test its depth and what depths could be safely traversed (we had to go across some big cracks that thinned quite a bit at the middle). Once we got to the more jagged ice we heard a Weddell Seal calling beneath us and saw it breathe, spraying icey water up into the air. It was amusing watching our (actually very brave) field trainer startle and jump off the chunk of ice before he realized it was the sound of a seal and not the sound of capsizing ice. As impressive as it was to finally get up close and personal with so many nesting penguins, I still think they are most entertaining while running across the sea ice – every so often one slips or trips while crossing an ice crack, then turns around to examine the offending ice very crossly raising the feathers atop their head. They have the best, sassiest personalities and remind you of it every time they pass by with a loud grumbling squawk to let you know they are *not* happy to see you. I love a sassy bird!
Sea ice crack crossing
The sovereign rulers of the ice
Of approximately 2,000 emperor penguins lumbering about the ice, we caught and put fancy little devices on 32 penguins. A large portion of our subjects were affixed (using a combo of tape and a touch of glue on the feathers) with Axytrek devices which measured where they went via GPS, how deep they dove with a pressure sensor, and how they moved in 3-dimensions with accelerometer. A smaller portion got affixed with satellite tags that would transmit location and diving data to a satellite that we could later download, and thus not have to retrieve the device from the bird. These tags are still transmitting and that’s how we plan to find where the penguins have gone to molt and renew their feathers (thus depositing the device with the discarded feathers onto whatever ice floe they’ve decided was sufficient for their month-long molt process).
Emperor penguin patiently rests on graduate student, Parker Forman’s, leg while devices are attached to its feathers by principle investigator, Gitte McDonald. The bird has a hood over its head to help minimize stress and keep it calm while we work. ACA permit #: 2023-003
The emperor penguins are obviously the main attraction and were the pinnacle of our trip to Crozier, not just because of the science we accomplished, but because they are one of the most remarkable birds in the world. Not only are they big (almost 60 lbs!) and stunningly beautiful (I mean, just look at them!), but they are incredible athletes. One of our penguins dove to over 500 meters! On average penguins spent 9 days at sea foraging for their chicks. And don’t even get me started on how cute the fluffy chicks are. These little guys and gals spend their days flopped over on the ice (sometimes eating snow) or running around the ice flapping their flippers like little pool noodles, squawking and begging for food, and filling their little jelly pot bellies when mom or dad comes home to feed them. Oh, and pooping. There is lots of pooping! It’s not all glamor with this lot of royalty and only a fresh coating of snow can hide that fact. The penguins love a coating of snow too – they roll around in it like puppies and love to “toboggan” on it - saving themselves from the endless grind of shuffling across the sea ice one foot-step at a time. The only downside, as far as I could tell, is during the blizzards when the little fluffs of down feathers get caked in snow – doesn’t look all that comfortable, at least not to us humans. But thankfully these incredible birds are well adapted to extreme cold.
Camp life – typical daily tasks
- Wake up, scan for birds that may have come home from foraging with Axytrek devices. Each bird also has a radio transmitter that we can pick up with a radio receiver to hear a distinct beeping when the bird has returned to the colony.
- Continue scanning every 45 minutes.
- If lucky, go catch a bird!
- Download tag data, process samples, enter data, process data
- Eating, lots of eating – when you’re cold you have to eat a LOT!
- Hydration – as the saying down there goes “hydrate or die!”
- Cut snow blocks for wind protection for camp and to melt for water
- Filter dirt and krill and guano bits out of the melted water
- Refuel the generator and charge up batteries
- Check the stove fuel and make sure the polar haven stays warm
- Check all ropes outside to make sure everything is secure in case of storm
- Check the growing sea ice crack leading up to camp (at some point, a seal popped out of this!)
- Radio safety checks to Scott Base (they were very good at giving us daily jokes to keep us entertained)
Scanning for penguins that have possibly returned from foraging at sea
Penguins at the colony ACA permit #: 2023-003
Photo Credit: Caitlin Kroeger