The Emperors of Snow Hill Discovered

Report by Roderick Eime - World Adventurer

The world’s largest penguin, the Emperor, lives exclusively in the deepest regions of Antarctica, right? Wrong!

In November 2004, the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov, encountered substantial numbers of Emperor Penguins in the water around the ship at 64 degrees south. Take a look at your atlas. The Antarctic Circle is 66 degrees! What were they? A new tropical breed of Emperor Penguin?

Frank ToddFrank Todd, ornithologist, author and naturalist guide aboard the Khlebikov, had heard stories of “lost” Emperors way up toward the tip of the Peninsula, on the Weddell Sea (eastern) side. In December 1893, Norwegian Captain Carl Larsen reported “numerous” Emperors in a colony on the fast ice (as in 'stuck fast') at around 67 degrees. In the last decade, the disintegrating ice shelf probably caused this colony to scatter and some, it would appear, headed north in search of more stable breeding grounds, or ice as in the case of Emperors.

Keen to confirm, or otherwise, the existence of a new colony so far north, Frank and other members of the scientific team boarded the Khlebnikov’s jet helicopters for a reconnaissance. Following their instincts and some earlier reports by Argentinean scientists, the colony was located on the ice a few hundred metres off the southern shore of Snow Hill Island.

The party landed, and after some initial data collection, brought back the awestruck passengers, split into small groups, to observe this incredible expedition bonus. They would have clambered like schoolchildren to see just one Emperor Penguin and not one of them could possibly have imagined finding a large (8,000 birds, Frank reckons) colony on this trip so far north. What’s more, they were without doubt, the first humans to visit this colony on foot.

“It was pleasing to see the colony in such good shape, “says Frank, “we counted 3885 downy chicks about a month old, almost all healthy and attended by a parent.”

Eager to preserve the integrity of the colony, passengers were landed behind a large iceberg to shield the birds from the noise and scary imagery of a Russian helicopter. Despite what was almost certainly these animals’ first encounter with humans, their innate curiosity took over and soon Emperors were standing to attention and marching over for a closer look at the new visitors, occasionally trumpeting their royal presence.

With this new colony now properly documented, number 44 of 45 known, Snow Hill Island will become a regular fixture on the Kapitan Khlebnikov’s expedition calendar. Previously, Penguin fans had to travel as far as 72 degrees on the other side of the continent for a look at a decent flock of Emperors. What once took over 20 days, can now be achieved in less than a fortnight, with plenty of time for exploring.

The Weddell Sea in November is still shaking off the last of its wintry hangover, and dense ice around the islands is common. This limits access to only the toughest of ice vessels, the icebreaker, and Khlebnikov is currently the only one operating passenger journeys to Antarctica at that time.

Emperor Penguin Fast Facts

  • The Emperor Penguin is the only bird that never sets foot on land, preferring to breed on the ice and swim in the sea.
  • The majority of all known Emperor Penguins, approximately 200,000 pairs, live their entire lives below the Antarctic Circle.
  • After mating, the male Emperor incubates the egg alone during winter while the female returns to the sea to feed. He loses around half of his 40kg weight in the process.
  • They eat mainly small fish and crustaceans and can dive to 300 metres.
  • Although Emperor Penguins are not classified as endangered, their numbers are decreasing. Scientists do not know why.

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