Karen Telleen-Lawton: Antarctica 4: Penguins! | Homes & Lifestyle

You thought I’d never get there. When I returned from Antarctica, the most frequent question asked by friends was, “How were the penguins?” This notwithstanding the skeptic who demanded, “Didn’t you get tired of penguins?”


Watching penguins is like people-watching. They’re basically short people in fancy tuxedos with very good posture. From their antics, they appear to live soap-opera lives in very close quarters.

King penguins play follow-the-leader in Antarctica waters.
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King penguins play follow-the-leader in Antarctica waters. (Lindblad guest photo)

Scientifically, penguins are related to auks, but the largest living auks are about the same size as the smallest penguin. Santa Barbara birders know we have quite a few auks on the Channel Islands: murres, guillemots, murrelets, auklets, and even a couple of puffins. They all share black and white plumage and that curious upright posture.

We first met gentoo penguins, featuring bright orange lipstick and white headbands that made them look elegant. Although it was nesting season, the colony we visited on Danco Island off the coast of Graham Land was completely without chicks.

Our guide said the warming climate caused more icy rain and snow to fall. The rock-and-earth nesting gentoos didn’t perceived the right conditions until too late in the season, so they never nested. The adults continued to waddle up and down the slope, finding or pilfering rocks for nests.

A gentoo penguin jumps into the water.
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A gentoo penguin jumps into the water. (Lindblad guest photo)

We were heartened to find gentoo families at our next landing. We spied chicks at many stages of development, including awkward teens, whose tuxedo colors were just beginning to emerge beneath fluffy brown or gray baby feathers. 

Quiet on the ice

no sound but squawking penguins

and our hushed wonder.

Turning to an area of hyper squawking, we watched as scua seabirds circled over a small group of juveniles enjoying a bit of freedom. Suddenly a giant petrel swooped in and grabbed a penguin. We watch as he devoured it live, poking around for his favorite parts.

Adelie penguins, with a comely black eyebrow, are the favored meal of another predator: leopard seals. On a long morning zodiac cruise in the Weddell Sea, we watched a leopard seal lie in wait for an Adelie to slide down an iceberg into the water. The seal caught his lunch and flopped it back and forth to skin. Then he ate it whole.

It was both difficult and fascinating to be voyeurs to these killings.

Macaroni and Rockhopper penguins distinguish themselves with dramatic gold plumage sprouting above their eyes. Both species are amazing climbers. One afternoon we kayaked over to a sheltered cove to watch Macaroni penguins leap out of the water onto guano-drenched rock cliffs. It was unbelievable how they could grip with their sharp claws, rarely missing the mark.

Penguins are necessarily social penguins, to improve their chances against their predators. Yet even these social creatures seem very individual. Chinstrap penguins seemed to ignore us most of the time. King penguins were quite curious, coming to within a foot of us to stare.

Kings met us in the surf for the a landing on South Georgia Island. An estimated 150,000 swam the cove and stood in crowded metropolises on the sand, in short grasses on a long, wide, glacial moraine, and clumped among tuft grasses on the steep hills on one side. Their buzzy calls sounded like drones.

Tuxedos for all

Bowing, chatting cheerily

King penguin people.

Climate change is having an uneven effect on penguin species. Emperor penguins and other species which nest on sea ice suffer from loss of breeding, molting, and feeding habitat. Adelie penguins’ favored food of krill is down 80% in the past 50 years, but they are so far holding their own in the Weddell Sea. Gentoos are spreading further south as the climate warms.

With more precipitation now falling as rain instead of snow, the penguins get muddier and have a difficult time cleaning their feather. Chicks’ brown or gray baby feathers are not insulated or waterproof; they develop hypothermia.

Penguins have the star power of our island foxes and polar bears. If their cuteness factor can rouse the world community enough to act for the globe, their cuteness will not be in vain.

Save the penguin people.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the principal of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach her with your financial planning questions at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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