I had the opportunity to sit, observe and take a closer look at penguins on Christmas Eve of 2008. Yes, I am now just writing about this online 8 years later!
Cuverville Island has the largest colony of gentoo penguins in Antarctica. It has 4,800 breeding *pairs*. There were so many penguins around me! Some of them nest near the water and some up the hill. Considering they walk so awkwardly on land, it’s amazing how they get up there on the hill several times a day.
We did a “wet landing” at Cuverville Island at 9 am. “Wet landing” means you get off the zodiac on shallow waters and hope the water does not get in your rubber boots. One by one, we had to pefectly time our disembarkation with the waves.
Below is my non-scientific observation about the curious behavior of Gentoo penguins in Cuverville Island.
1. Dirty and clean penguins:
One can tell if a penguin has been taking care of a chick for a while. They are dirty and their fur is covered in poop. They can’t wash their fur because they are stuck on the “nest duty” with a chick. Ah, the sacrifice of parenting.
However, those that looks clean, have probably been swimming and in charge of hunting for food.
But one good thing about penguins is they know that it is a 2-penguin job. Both mother and father sit on the egg. They take turns until it hatches.
2. They are thieves!
They also steal each other’s stones on the nest. I’ve seen it happen. Check out around 0:14 seconds of the video above. They use their beak and steal the stones on the nest of his/her neighbor. Since the father or mother is sitting on the nest, it really cannot move away and catch the thief. This is a curious behavior. I guess it is easier to steal from the neighbor than go all the way down the hill, pick up a stone and climb back the hill awkwardly and do this 100 times to build a nest.
…or maybe there is a lack of supply of stones up the hill because it is covered with snow?
…or maybe stealing stones from the neighbor could be psychological. If your neighbor has that stone, it must be a good stone, right? Maybe.
Not sure of the reasoning, but they do steal from each other!
3. Why reinvent the path?
Another thing I observed is they use the same walking path each time, which actually makes sense. Like humans (based from my own experience), it’s very hard to walk on fresh snow. Same thing for penguins. It is easier for them to use a path that hundreds or thousands of penguins have already used. The snow is more compact and solid, so it is easier to walk on it.
The path is narrow, so when there are several of them walking, they look like they are in line formation. And when the penguin in front has to stop (scratch its wings or rest), the penguin behind it would jump/walk/wobble to pass the leader and then go back to walk to the same path. They know how to pass the penguin in front of them. So smart!
Because there are thousands of them on this island, they get so close to humans. Tourists are not supposed to stay within 5 feet, but sometimes there is just nowhere to go and you literally just have to let them pass by your feet. And if you get lucky, they will approach you.
This was one of my most memorable Christmas Eve. Other pictures from Cuverville: