Cape Royds: Adelie Penguins (& Shackleton’s Hut)

penguins from Cape Royds

We went to Cape Royds for a day trip to collect Adelie eggshells. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many around and we only collected about 20 samples. It was my first Adelie penguin colony and it was quite the sight. The penguins were, of course, lovely. They made all kinds of postures and noises to eachother, and it was very entertaining to watch them interact. They live in these large colonies (the largest one in the area is 170,000 individuals at Cape Crozier, which we will be going to soon) and are therefore highly social animals.

Penguins are really interesting animals for many different reasons. They are highly adapted to their harsh environment, a true seabird. They are superbly adapted to marine life. Having lost their flying ability, their wings evolved into stiff flippers which propel them through the water efficiently at high speeds. Their stiff tails and feet act as rudders which steer their sleek, streamlined bodies. Like other flightless birds, they are heavier than their flying cousins. Their bones are not pneumatic (hollow), their air sacs are reduced, and their feathers are short and stiff. But they have traded the sky for the sea, and as far as diving birds go, penguins are the best. Adelie’s are shallow divers and feed by pursuit diving, pecking out their food as they swerve from side to side underwater. They prefer to eat euphausiids (krill) but will also take fish, amphipods, and cephalopods. Colony-specific diets vary according to where they are in the Antarctic and what prey are abundant in the area.

Adelie penguins are named for the wife of the 19th century French explorer Jules Sebastien Dumont d’Urville. They are found exclusively in the Antarctic. They will colonize virtually any coastal area, as long as it is free of ice and has no large steps, which their short legs cannot negotiate. Common colony sizes are 20,000 to 30,000 birds, with a record of up to 1 million birds (although a colony of more than 100,000 is rare).

one of the aggressive postures

Adelie penguins have vivid white orbital eye rings, and this feature is an important part of their social communication. With its eyes down, a penguin exposes even more white in the sclerae of its eyes while it performs three main displays of aggression – the direct stare, the fixed and alternate one-sided stare, and the crouch. The most common one in response to our presence seemed to be sitting up straight, head down, sclerae exposed (at first I thought something was wrong with their eyes!), flippers out to the side, and their “hackles” raised. If I approached a penguin in this posture any closer, it would open its beak at me and threaten to peck, sometimes coming a little closer……and if pushed even further, they would simply decide it was time to give up and quickly waddle away. You just can’t take them seriously!

An interesting behavior I noticed while watching them at the edge of the sea was that one by one individual penguins would come down to the edge of the sea and gather in a little group. It seemed no penguin wanted to be the first to dive into the water, for fear of any predators (leopard seals, orcas) lurking unseen below the surface. But eventually, after several minutes of standing around, one would build up enough courage to leap into the water. And then, literally within the same moment, all the penguins would dive in after the first one. A few moments later, you could see them leaping out of the water in a group, much like little dolphins.

safety in numbers

Adelies are monogamous, and mate for life. Timing is crucial for a pair to successfully raise a chick. The level of pair-bonding seems to depend on the latitude of the colony…the farther south the colony, the more important timing is to reproductive success (because of the shorter summer and more harsh climate) and the less likely a penguin is to wait around for last year’s partner to turn up. At Casey Station (~66 degrees S) 80% of Adelies rejoin their former partners. Adelies at Cape Bird (~55 degrees S) can’t spare the time to wait, and begin breeding as soon as possible, with a new mate. Only 56% of Cape Bird Adelies reunite with their previous mate.

penguins in love ❤

Adelies build their nests out of carefully selected and placed stones, which are highly valued. Often when they return from foraging at sea, they will bring a stone as a gift to their partner. If they find one that they really like, they will carry it for great distances, and often will also steal stones from the nests of rivals or neighbors, sparking boundary disputes.

I like stones!

penguin with two chicks

Another interesting behavior seen in penguins is “chicknapping”. This is mainly seen in emperors, whose brooding instinct is so strong that chickless adults will try to steal any chick that is left alone for even a few seconds. It can turn into a stampede such that up to a dozen adults will try to claim the chick as their own by pushing it under their belly feathers. The chick can get trampled to death in the madness. It has been reported that penguins will even try to steal the chicks of skuas (which predate on penguin chicks).

Cape Royds is historically famous because it is the site of Shackleton’s “Nimrod” hut. In 1907, the British Antarctic Expedition (also called the Nimrod Expedition, after the ship’s name) was the first one three expeditions to the Antarctic led by Ernest Shackleton. The primary objective was to be the first to reach the South Pole, along with other scientific and geographic objectives along the way. Shackleton was an intrepid, but wise, explorer, and he halted the expedition 97 miles before reaching the Pole. He did this because he knew that if he pushed on, they would make be the first to make it to the Pole, but they would surely perish on the return journey. So he erred on the side of caution (and life!) and turned the expedition around. They did reach further south (88 degrees) than any human before them to that date. They held the record for three years before the Norwegians (led by Amundsen) and then Scott reached the Pole.

(photograph taken by Shackleton)

The Nimrod Expedition lacked financial support from the government and relied on private loans and private investors. The Nimrod was less than half the size of Scott’s1901-04 expedition ship Discovery. The crew was inexperienced, and preparations were hurried. Nonetheless, despite the small profile of the expedition, upon his return, Shackleton was made a public hero (and knighted by the king) because of his tremendous achievements and popularity as a charismatic, careful, and effective leader. Scott had to be jealous. In fact, following this they had a falling out.

The Cape Royds hut was built in 1907 by Shackleton and his men upon reaching Antarctica. To give his men immediate purpose, he ordered that they climb the 12,450 ft Mount Erebus, the volcano. They were the first to attempt and succeed this amazing feat. The hut itself  is in sight of the Adelie penguin rookery, which is in the same location it was in at the time Shackleton was around. The men surely made meals of the readily available Adelies.

Shackleton's Nimrod hut

You can see everything stacked up and organized just as Shackleton and his men left it. There are plenty of wooden crates still nailed shut, rusty and forgotten tools laid out, even their trash pile outside is still visible. Dr. Emslie asked for the key to the hut from McMurdo Station, and we got to explore the inside (carefully).

British Antarctic Expedition 1907

the all-important stove that kept the men warm


some of the food stores - there was a lot!

can you find Shackleton's signature?

This was by far the most far-out museum I have ever been to (and probably ever will!). It was amazing to be there and see everything just like they left it, and to imagine the hardships that they endured and (mostly) survived. They didn’t have any of the comforts that Antarctic visitors enjoy today, none of the technical clothes, vehicle and helicopter supports, or fancy scientific instruments. They were real tough men that survived the harshest tests of their lives down here on the Ice.

As a side note, a recent discovery in the Royds Hut made international news: Shackleton’s Whiskey on (Antarctic) Ice – Whiskey over 100 years old stashed by Shackleton in 1908 rediscovered!

*Dr. Emslie said that he was at Cape Royds one summer, and had seen smoke and heat waves coming out of the chimney BUT no one was around or inside the hut – not to mention using the old stove (and you need a key to get in anyways)! He’s convinced it was a ghost of one the men that perished during the expedition.*

Tomorrow (if the weather permits) we will be going to Cape Bird for an extended trip of 4 days & nights. There is a Kiwi station there that supposedly is pretty comfortable, so we won’t be camping out there unless there isn’t enough room. I don’t know if they have net access there, but I suspect there will be some availability, so I am taking my laptop just in case.

While walking around the Adelie colony, I did find two of the rare penguin mutants….the “smear-faced” and the “Sleepy Hollow” variants:


8 responses to “Cape Royds: Adelie Penguins (& Shackleton’s Hut)

  1. That one picture looks an awful lot like your title bar 🙂
    I love you and miss you, hope you are having fun out at cape bird! I will talk to you later tonight!

    • haha, youre absolutely right!!! that’s to be expected though, considering there is such a small list of things that Adelie’s do….diving into water off ice is one of them 🙂

  2. Eva,

    Fantastic pictures. Shakleton’s hut. OMG His account of survival after the failed 1914-1917 expedition is one of the most gripping accounts I have ever read.


    • Thanks Uncle Kurt! Shackleton’s hut was indeed an incredible place to visit…his story, and those of all the early Antarctic explorers, are ones of hardship, survival (& death), and truly extreme conditions. It blows my mind, being here, to imagine just how they survived, almost like they were superhuman!

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