It’s so great to be back on the sea ice. We reckon, that there are still around 7000 emperor penguins in the colony at the moment and as you can imagine, they make quite a bit of noise (and also smell quite a bit as well if the wind blows their scent into your direction). It’s a marvelous spectacle to watch. The way the colony is set up is, that usually you have a few paired up birds in the periphery and it’s quite hard to predict what they’re up to. Sometimes they will just be lying on the ground resting, but sometimes they might be busy with courtship rituals which ultimately can lead into mating. Then the inner portion of the colony consists of birds huddled up or at least standing very close, sharing their body heat and sheltering each other from the wind. Around the colony, there are single scattered birds, some of them all by themselves, just walking around or standing still for no obvious reason at all. Maybe they are penguins who did not find a mate for the season or maybe they are just loners trying to get a break from all that socializing business – who knows :D.
The colony itself looks absolutely massive on warm days when the birds are quite spread out and don’t huddle much. It can shrink to a quarter of this size (or maybe even less) though, when it is a cold and windy day and the birds form a closely packed huddle. The huddle is the emperor penguins secret weapon against the cold and one reason why there are biologists, who consider emperor penguins to be a superorganism, much like ant or termite colonies for example. Whats happens is, that all the birds will be standing in a rough circle with more and more birds joining from the outside, all facing inwards towards the center. In fact, they are so closely packed, that you could not fit one more bird into the huddle without replacing another one. Slowly but steadily they will begin to heat each other with the body heat they would lose anyway. In the innermost areas of the huddle temperatures can exceed +30°C and scientists are currently investigating the exact physics and mechanisms of this heat up. Eventually temperatures will rise beyond what the penguins can bear and the huddle will break open, releasing hot steam into the cold Antarctic air. It’s a remarkable sight, because all of a sudden there is a lot of motion in the huddle, the volume of the emperors’ calls picks up and a giant cloud of steam emerges from amidst the birds, while they start to spread out flapping their wings. You can really tell that they are nicely warmed up, feeling all comfy and relaxed. To be honest – more than once I have stood by the colony watching this spectacle, feeling absolutely jealous that they were warm and I was shivering from the cold :).
In the past few weeks we have been focused on getting footage of the emperors courtship and mating rituals and were really successful in doing so. It was a privilege watching the birds select their partners for the season, as it is a very elegant and artistic procedure. Penguins are serially monogamous, which means, that they will have only one fixed partner per breeding season – this makes it essential for them to chose wisely and to make sure that their mate is strong enough to successfully breed their offspring. Once they have selected a partner they spend a lot of time making sure they’ve made the right decision. They will stand really close to each other mimicking the other ones behavior (sometimes even mirroring it). If one of them throws back their head and swings it around in a certain pattern, the other one will follow a few seconds later. The same is true for their calling. There is a very special way of calling when they bow down in order to take a really deep breath. Then their body gets very tense as they rise again, standing very tall with their head still looking down and all the air they just inhaled gets pressed out creating a very unique and unmistakeable call, which is promptly answered by their mate. Biologists say that they are reaffirming their bond, making sure they will learn everything they need to know about their partner in order to be able to find him/her again once they leave the colony for feeding in the ocean.
One of the most beautiful things is when they stand tall in front of each other, leaning their heads to one side and looking at each other. It’s such a beautiful pose as it really brings out the quite muscular nature of these birds (they are not just fat) and also shows their immense size – Emperor penguins can reach heights of 130cm. They will stay in this pose for up to a minute never moving an inch until they slowly relax their body again and sink back to their normal size.
After they have found their partner for a season they will eventually mate. The mating part differs quite a bit from the elegant courtship rituals and has almost comical aspects to it. After a while we had figured out how to predict when a couple was going to mate, as the female would straighten her back, spread her wings and then slowly descend onto the ground, landing on her belly with her wings stabilizing her sideways. Once she touches ground, she will lift up her tail, which signals the male that she is ready to mate. What happens now, is what you would expect to see in a first surfing lesson on a beach in Hawaii. While the female is as rigid as a surfboard, the male will come to her side and slowly start climbing on her back. For the most part this looks quite clumsy – exactly like a human standing on a surfboard for the very first time. While the male tries not to fall off again (which we witnessed quite a few times) he makes tiny steps on the females back and points his beak into her neck feathers in order to keep his balance. Once he is positioned correctly he will try to stand up a little more, bringing his tail down where it will touch the female’s tail (you can imagine the rest ;)). A few moments of rocking movement later the show is over and the male falls off the female again. Both get up and stand together, acting like absolutely nothing happened. The whole procedure looks quite stressful for them, so I could imagine they might be happy that its over already :).
A few weeks after witnessing courtship and mating, at the beginning of June, we could tell that some of the birds were moving funny and it was immediately clear what had happened. Some of them had laid their egg. Since emperor penguins do not build nests where they could keep their egg and incubate it, they have to carry it around on their feet instead. If you have a precious and fragile egg on the top of your feet though, you have to be very careful not to drop it when walking. Consequently, they make tiny steps when going from A to B. In 2012, that was the first stage we found them, since back then we could not get onto the sea ice before June. It’s unfortunate that we missed so many wonderful stages of their life back then, but incredible at the same time, that this time we were able to witness all of these special moments AND document them.
One of the most special moments I have ever witnessed in my life was actually seeing an emperor penguin lay an egg. To be honest, I never thought it would actually be possible to see this happening, since birds are usually rather private about this. Also, there are no photos of this on the internet whatsoever and there is only one single Youtube clip, which shows a few seconds of the procedure. Consequently I was rather skeptical, that we would be able to film this behavior, but on the very first day on the sea ice after the last storm had passed, we could actually see it happening live in front of our eyes. We figured out rather quickly how to identify females, which are about to lay an egg from a distance and with the long lens were able to get some really unique and never before seen footage. A female who is about to lay an egg will usually be standing tall, with the tips of her feet pointing inwards and her tail pointing straight down on the ground. Her legs are stretched all the way and with a straight back she is slightly leaning forwards. Her wings are slightly angled and her shoulders are pulled up almost all the way. Just from looking at that pose one can easily tell that she must be feeling uncomfortable (at least that is my interpretation). Most of the time she will remain in that pose, but every few seconds she contracts her muscles and pushes her whole body down. Her tail will move forwards in between her legs until the contraction is over and she stands tall again. This can go on for a couple of minutes until you can finally see part of the egg sticking out. A few more pushes and the egg literally falls onto the ground, where she has positioned her feet in the best way to immediately pick it up and warm it, by sticking the brood pouch on the underside of her belly over it.
Once the egg is laid another great behavior follows promptly and it is quite fascinating to watch. By producing the egg the female has lost about one third of her body weight and she desperately needs to feed in order to survive the winter. However, with the newly laid egg on her feet it would be impossible for her to do so. Emperor penguin females will therefore pass the egg on to their male partner who will incubate it during polar night for around 90-100 days. In the meantime, the females will go back to sea in order to feed and regain weight to take over the reigns again, once the chick has hatched. The transfer of the egg from the female to the male is also called the „dance“ as they will circle around each other many times before the actual pass. The male will constantly bow down, inspecting the egg on the female’s feet while trying to get her to release it. The female is still quite attached to the egg though and usually will not just give it away. Over and over again the male will walk around her, acting as if he wanted to push the egg down her feet only to be able to pick it up himself. During this dance they will stand tall and call to each other many times. It’s remarkable to watch as you can tell how agitated both of them are. Then, sometimes after a few minutes, sometimes after more than an hour, the female will softly drop the egg onto the ground, stepping back in order to give the male enough room to pick it up. He will immediately walk towards the egg using his beak to point it into the right direction with the tip of the egg facing away from him. Everything has to happen rather quickly since the egg will lose a lot of heat while on the ground. If the male takes to long to pick it up, their offspring might be lost. However, if the male is skilled enough, picking up a released egg will only take him around 20 seconds until it is back on his feet and covered by the warm brood pouch. If passed successfully, the pair will reaffirm their bonds with multiple calls and slowly moving around their heads until without further notice, the female will leave for the sea. It’s an incredibly powerful moment, since the male will now have to take care of the egg for the next 100 days – without being able to feed. It gets even worse than that. Once the chick hatches he will have to feed it immediately even though he himself has not eaten ever since he arrived at the colony almost five months ago.
All of the behavior I have described in this post happened on very cold days here in Antarctica. Ever since May 21st, polar night has begun, which means that in the days before, the Sun had been very low in the sky already and did not have any power to really warm up the ground and the air anymore. Temperatures have plummeted ever since and on a cloudless day it gets as cold as -44°C. Combine this with a bit of wind and the windchill can quickly take temperatures below -50°C. These kinds of temperatures significantly affected our gear, making batteries last only half as long or completely locking up fluid heads for our main camera. The shutter of my Nikon D810 started squeaking in these temperatures and every frame I took made me cringe while I hoped that nothing in my camera would break. Even my big batteries (EN-EL18) only lasted around 100 shots and then were done. Exchanging them is a pain in the neck, because nothing about the camera can be handled comfortably when you are wearing thick gloves. In fact, I have ruined a few shots already when I was in manual mode and accidentally changed exposure time by brushing against the front control dial with my thick gloves, without ever noticing. Only after you have finished the burst and review the images, all of a sudden you realize that exposure time was changed in between shots (it can happen when you put the camera on the ground in order to warm up your fingers in between shots). Working under these conditions really isn’t a lot of fun and can be quite frustrating.
Around a week ago we had the coldest day so far at -42°C and around 15 knots of wind which took us way below -52°C with windchill. It’s essential that you dress really well in these conditions, making sure that not even the slightest bit of skin is exposed to the air. That being said, even if you are really thorough, sometimes you might miss a tiny spot. That’s what happened to me on our way back to station. I guess my goggles were not pressed against my balaclava firmly enough and so a small wind stream hit the side of my nose. A minute later I had first degree frostbite (warning, link contains very graphic images) :-(. By the time I felt how it stung it was already too late and all I could do was to adjust my goggles and continue the ride back home. Back in station I could see how the affected patch of skin was completely pale and only slowly regained red color. First degree frostbite feels a bit like a severe sunburn and as I am writing these lines the skin on my nose is peeling. It will take a few more days until everything is healed again and it’s a stark reminder, that the conditions that we’re filming in are quite harsh and getting good shots is a lot of hard work.
Last but not least, even on good days filming time is currently quite limited, since the Sun does not rise at the moment. Around noon time we get civil twilight, which is just enough light to film with our specialized low light camera. For my photography this means, that I am constantly shooting wide open (at f/2.8) or stopped down by 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop max. Camera is always set to ISO 6400 and the fastest shutter speed I can get for a decent exposure is around 1/160s. This is barely fast enough for slow penguin movement. If they throw back their head or move around, usually the shots will suffer from motion blur. Also, shooting wide open means that I will only have a very shallow depth of field, so for most of my images where I want to capture two birds at the same time (for example for the passing of the egg) I need to make sure they are almost in the same object plane. This can be quite tough, since the birds don’t just stand still all the time but perform the dance around each other prior to passing the egg. You never know if you will have a side-on view or if the egg itself will be hidden by one of the penguins. The procedure can last up to an hour though, so if you take into consideration that you only have 1.5-2h of usable light, you can focus on one or two couples per day before the light is gone. It’s really slow shooting and if you capture one good shot per day, you are quite lucky already.
That being said, we were able to capture some really great footage of all the aforementioned behavior – footage that I personally have never seen in a movie about emperor penguins. We’re quite excited and I am sure people will love some of the behavior in the final program. 🙂