During the first trip of the 2019-2020 Antarctic season with the Scenic-Eclipse, one of the questions that many of the participants asked me insistently was: “are we going to see Emperor Penguins?” Knowing that it was almost impossible, my answer in a very educated and polite way was that no. Although I had mentioned that in my presentation about penguins, I explained to them that the colonies of Emperor Penguins are located hundreds of kilometers within the ice and that with great luck we would see an individual swimming or in the ice far out of reach. This, of course, as long as it was possible to enter the Weddell Sea, which was “in proximity” of the Snow Hill Island colony, however navigating these waters can be difficult due to the ice conditions.
But the universe gave us a glimmer of hope. The ice chart showed that the ice conditions in the following days were going to be adequate for navigation in the Weddell Sea. In addition to that, our boat, the Scenic-Eclipse, has been specifically built following to the most rigorous specifications in the industry for navigation in polar waters.
We arrived at the chosen point and the captain positioned our boat parallel to the fast ice, so that we could go down the starboard side using the gangway ladder. After having breakfast, we, the Discovery Team went out to assess the ice conditions and establish a perimeter so that the guests could go out to explore safely. While we waited for them, I kept looking around with my binoculars, especially next to the ship where the open sea was, but I didn’t see anything unusual. I noticed my adrenaline kicking in every time I saw an Adelie Penguin coming out to the ice!
People came out and had a blast walking around and exploring the ice, it had been at least an hour since the time guests were out. At that point, a good number of the guests had returned on board again, when all of the sudden, in front of the bow I two saw penguins come out of the water. The first thing that struck me was the size of these individuals! While trying to convince myself that what I was seeing were really Emperor Penguins, I heard one of my colleagues confirming on the radio what I was seeing, he rarioded “I got 4 Emperor Penguins coming out the water“.
From the bridge, the entire ship was immediately notified that there were emperor penguins as many of the guests had already returned to the ship, had changed and were relaxing. Needless to say they changed again and came right away to enjoy this once-in-a-life-experience. I remember in particular a couple who wanted to see them so badly, being very happy after that encounter! In the end EVERYONE on the ship including crew, hotel staff, management, officers, etc, had the incredible opportunity to see these amazing creatures up close.
The most spectacular of all was that the penguins came to check on us to the point that following the IAATO protocols, we had to get away from them and open the way for them to pass, despite that they continued to linger around us. Their behavior was typical of animals that do not see humans as a threat, did not I notice any behavior or vocalization of alarm! Truly something increasingly unusual in the world but that it still happening in Antarctica because of the excellent work of IAATO and the organizations that work making sure to keep this pristine place.
Most likely, these penguins belonged to the colony of Snow Hill Island, the “closest and most accessible” colony in Antarctica to see this species. From our point, the colony was located about 50 nautical miles (92.6 km or 57.5 mi). Normally to get there you must organize a trip and special logistics that includes helicopters and camping. I no longer remember exactly how long they spent with us but it seemed as time just stopped right then at the point we were not aware of the time when it was time to leave and continue our journey. We all returned to the ship leaving these 4 penguins on the ice. As we boarded, we discovered that there were 8 more emperor penguins on the ice behind the bow!
As a birder I had plenty of experiences getting “life birds”, (for those that are not familiar with the term,a life bird means seeing/identifying a bird species for the first time in your life) plenty of rare and unique species but this one was just remarkable and it goes to one of the top ones!
During the rest of that trip, everyone remembered this moment and for many it was the experience of their lives! I was just grateful for this and I never stopped smiling every time I remembered our encounter with these penguins and until now I can’t find the words in English (or in Spanish, my mother tongue) to express how magical and wonderful that moment was!
Happy birding and stay safe!
Love you all.