When you work in Antarctica, as I have for 36 of the last 40 years, every day is Earth Day. Or World Penguin Day. This place, these animals, have left indelible impressions and emitted darts of light that have changed my life and changed my way of thinking about everything.
In Skype chats with schoolkids, I encourage their getting outside to get to know their own backyards. I was lucky. That’s what I did in the woods near my childhood Pennsylvania home, breathing some fresh air, gaining some independence and starting to conjure how I fit into the scheme of things.
Fast forward a few decades and I’m camping with my team at remote Petermann Island in the vastly warmed Antarctic Peninsula, counting penguin nests and chicks as part of Oceanites’ Antarctic Site Inventory project, assessing changes in these populations.
It’s a cold, 6 am, 25˚F. morning, it’s blowing a ‘hoolie’ outside my warm tent, I’ve just awakened and all I can think about is racing up to our larger office tent, 50 yards away, to make some coffee. Unzipping the tent, I unexpectedly find myself face-to-face with one of the island’s gentoo penguins. These two-and-a-half foot tall, twelve pounders are the most common nesting penguin here and are the one Antarctic penguin species that’s managed to adapt quite well in this climate-changed region.
My very plump, morning acquaintance won’t move. It is spiffy clean, having just returned from a feeding run and, between feverish bouts of feather-preening and shaking salt drip off its bill, it leans in, rolls its head back and forth and stares at me. On land and out of the water, they’re quite near-sighted and this one is definitely so, inching forward to the point where it almost careens into the tent and onto my lap. It starts nibbling on my legs, ankles to knees.
At one point, it raises its tail and shoots a frothy white stream of fishy guano onto the snow beyond. Then comes a loud mooing call to which its mate, I presume, responds from a distance. Then back to me. I put my right hand on the tent jamb and my fingers become a new object for its bill-poking. And, then, my favorite part. It backs off, bows deeply for a couple of seconds, turns and starts waddling inland.
Nothing better than a near-and-dear gentoo before breakfast! As often happens during these up-close-and-personal encounters, my heart is racing and pounding. This creature has just shared a bit of its life and routine with me, without fear, with obvious curiosity and little drama, and I am touched. In a fashion, I am flying, though my penguins can’t. And I am humbled, which we all should be each April, celebrating our planet and all who inhabit it.
My thoughts swirl to that question of how I — or we — fit and the messages my penguins are sending.
The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than almost anywhere else on the planet. The response has been disparate — gentoo numbers soaring and their breeding range expanding, and Adélie and chinstrap populations significantly declining.
We’re living a critical and historical moment, and therein lies my Earth Day and World Penguin Day wish. We — like all living things on this planet — must realize that we have the same four requirements for life and survival: Food to eat. A good home. An environment free of pandemics and disease. And more kids and grandkids.
Let’s resolve to get involved.
Photo credit for image at top: Ron Naveen