Cape Crozier was the location of the largest Adelie colony that we would visit this season, with about half a million penguins! We went to Cape Crozier with the plan that we would be going there for 3 day trips (which ended up getting scratched). We could have stayed there in the hut, but it was being closed up for the season, and it would have been easier just to fly in every day. The weather there is notoriously swift to change from good to bad, and there was a large chance that we would have to stay there anyways for an indeterminate amount of time (which I would have been just fine with!). But, just like the rest of the season, the weather cooperated perfectly, and we got in and out as planned.
view from the helo flying in
Yesterday was a very exciting day – one of the highlights of this entire trip, and a new experience altogether! It was our highly-anticipated trip to Beaufort Island, which could only be reached by the Swedish icebreaker Oden. For our team, it was a chance to sample some very old penguin colonies. In fact, the oldest penguin molt layer was discovered there by Dr. Emslie 5 years ago. He collected feather and bone from this exposed layer on the northern end of the island, which turned out to be too old for radio-carbon dating – meaning that the remains were over 44,000 years old!
Beaufort Island was visible during our stay at Cape Bird. However, NSF helicopters cannot reach it because there is an expanse of open water, which they are not allowed to fly over (because in the case of an emergency, it would mean certain death). In 2005, when USAP had Coast Guard helicopters at McMurdo, flying to Beaufort Island was not a problem. But the Coast Guard helicopters are no longer coming down to McMurdo (they were extracted because they were needed for Iraq). So the only way to reach it now is by icebreaker, which limits field time severely (we were given a maximum of 3-4 hours on the island). It really is too bad, because Beaufort Island is a treasure-trove of paleoecological data, and has been studied very little to date.
Beaufort Island as seen from Cape Bird
So, Friday morning I woke up at 5 am to make it to the lab before our pick-up time of 5:45 am. The van came on time and delivered us, as well as Dr. Ainley’s team, and a couple of artists (a husband and wife) to the dock. There were 12 of us – 10 scientists and 2 artists. I was surprised, because I thought that many more scientists would be going. But it was only a select group. In fact, I almost wasn’t allowed to go – they would only allow 4 people from each team, and of course, I would have gotten left out. It might have had to do with the fact that Beaufort Island is another ASPA (Antarctic Specially Protected Area) and you need a permit to visit it (although every field site we visit is an ASPA because of the colonies). But Dr. Emslie wrote to the captain, asking that they allow me on as well. They said I could come along for the ride, with the exception that I would not be able to go out to the island (although once I was on the ship, they did agree to let me go…after all, how could they resist the charm of a young, aspiring scientist?)…I just am so happy that in the end, I got to participate despite the obstacles.
The mighty icebreaker Oden!
We returned yesterday evening from four days and nights (Saturday – Wednesday) in the field, working out of the NZ Hut at Cape Bird:
Getting there was tricky – the helicopter pilots don’t really like flying there because of the strong winds that come down over the mountains and glaciers, and there was a high chance that we would not be able to get there (or be picked up) at our requested times. But the weather cooperated both ways so that we got in and out just as planned.
Posted in Antarctica, field work
Tagged Adelie penguins, Cape Bird, creche, McDonald beach, Middle colony, North colony, orca, skua, Skua Lake, South colony
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.