It was a familiar sound and yet so unfamiliar, since we had not heard it in a few weeks. When we arrived at the edge of the shelf ice close to Pingi-Rampe a few days ago, we could finally hear the calls of the emperor penguins again. Furthermore, it was not just a single call. It was hundreds of calls, unison mixed into what many people describe as a cacophony. For me however, the trumpet like sounds made by the emperors are like music and I would rather describe them as a euphony of unique melodies, that we have missed for almost two months now. It is so great to have them back! 😀
I guess their return was only possible since we have had a quite stable layer of sea ice for the past three weeks. The bay is not fully closed yet though and there are still some open patches of water, but the shape of the ice itself has not changed much and quite a few ice bergs are locked in now and have not moved in a while. Also the position of the open patches has not changed too much and things in Atka-Bay are seemingly settling down. We might very well already be looking at the final configuration of our bay for the coming seven months. We can see some huge ice bergs in the not too far distance and also some smaller ones quite close to the southern end of the bay. Both places will be easily accessible via Skidoo. Further North there is a wonderful ice berg with a large cave and we hope that this will stay around as well. It would make a beautiful backdrop for penguins traveling to and from the colony.
The colony itself is forming as I am writing these lines, but due to weather we cannot get to them at the moment and have to be patient instead. We spent an amazingly calm and warm day there though and were able to witness hundreds of birds arriving. They all came from far North, walking across the flat icy surface of the sea ice making their way through fields of ice ridges. Due to heat haze in the air, the only view we could get of these distant birds were distorted like Fata Morganas in a hot desert. It looked extremely atmospheric and underlines the efforts that the birds have to make in order to get to their destination.
It still amazes me how they make it here after all. We have had weeks in which we visited the same spot five times a week and each and every one of these five times it looked completely different. It is absolutely remarkable that a bird is capable of recognizing a place that has absolutely no static landmarks and looks different each time they come back. Also their timing is phenomenal. It is almost guaranteed that first birds come back to their breeding grounds by the end of march and huge numbers will follow early April. That’s how it worked in 2012 and that how it is happening right now as well. The emperor penguins are not considered to be the smartest of birds, but they surely have an amazing sense for timing and orientation. Plus, now that they are coming back with their bellies filled, they look huge and really majestic. True emperors in a beautiful coat and more colorful than we have ever seen them in summer.
While they are gathering, the sea ice looks a penguin highway system. There are plenty of lines leading to and from larger aggregations of birds and sometimes there will be two lines with birds traveling from A to B and another line with birds traveling from B to A. We have not quite understood yet why they are doing this, but their main objective at the moment is to find a mate that they will stay faithful to for the entire year. Hence, they must chose wisely. We could even observe penguin intersections, small groups located in between larger groups from which lines spread out to all surrounding groups with penguins traveling back and forth – it’s just a remarkable spectacle. There are still some cracks in the sea ice which the penguins seem to use in order to take shortcuts, so they don’t have to walk or slide across the entire layer of ice. Sometimes when they surface in order to take a breath they look like whales spyhopping or the dorsal fin of a shark in a horror movie going up and down in the water – it’s really quite entertaining to watch. Some of these cracks get so crowded that there is virtually no space left for any penguin to get in the water. There is life and noise everywhere :). Speaking of life, we are still seeing some snow petrels flying around the colony which was quite unexpected, since they would usually have left this place weeks ago. We also still see the occasional antarctic petrel and even saw large flocks of them just a few days ago. We are not quite sure why they are hanging around and I will research their travel patterns a bit more, but to my understanding they are quite late and should have left for warmer places like South Georgia or other islands in the Southern Ocean.
We still cannot get down onto the sea ice at the moment and have to watch all that is happening in the colony from above, which is quite frustrating to be honest. Looking at the bright side though, it’s forcing us to be creative with the one angle that we’ve got and I think we were able to capture some nice moments, beautifully framed and composed. Yesterday we had an unexpected bad weather system come in which brought us a ton of snow (my skidoo is buried at the moment and I will have a lot of digging to do later). Let’s hope that this snow will accumulate at the edge of the shelf in order to form a ramp soon. We only have until the beginning of May, when the females will lay their egg and pass it on to the males for incubation. That surely is a crucial behavior of these incredible birds, that we would love to be able to witness on eye level with them. Feel free to cross your fingers as well! 🙂