After returning to Union Glacier camp in Antarctica on the 30th November 2013 from a successful expedition to the South Pole; it was on the 1nd December 2013, we boarded the Basler BT-67 Sky Aircraft at noon to fly to Gould Bay in Antarctica, in search of the Emperor Penguin, the tallest and the heaviest of the 18 species of the Penguins in the Animal Planet. The Penguin is a flightless aquatic bird whose Emperor is only found in Antarctica. It was around 2pm, just before landing when I had the first sight of a few penguins from the air. Finally, we landed on ice at 215pm at Gould Bay campsite of the ANI for three nights. The light was very good for photography with clear skies.
GPS readings on my camera were latitude-S77deg44’, Longitude-W47deg32’ with an altitude of 6.20meters above sea level. The temperature was 5deg C below zero. There were a few penguins scattered in the vicinity of the camp. The camp was situated on ice on land but the surrounding bay was frozen with full of ice.
The facilities at the campsite were very basic. I had to share my tent with a Hong Kong Photographer who has travelled to many part of the world on wildlife photography including Sri Lanka. Within minutes after taking my luggage and the sleeping bag to my tent, I was ready to go to see the Emperor Penguins, which I have waited for the last three years. My book on 50 years of wild life photography titled “Odyssey into the Wild” to be launched in Colombo on the 8th May 2014, is not complete without the Icon of Antarctica.
We were given a guide, Tom, to guide us to the Penguin Colony located 2.5miles from the camp. I used a sled to take my camera equipment to the colony. Half way to the colony there was a crack on ice, which was around a meter in width where a few penguins were close to it. According to Tom, the ice at the crack is about 2-3 meters in depth where the penguins dive into water to go in search of food that they needed to survive as well as to feed their four months old chicks. The Penguins could dive up to a depth of 500meters, with an average speed of 17mph, in search of food, mainly consists of fish while crustaceans such as krill, and also the cephalopods that include squid. They can hold their breath up to 20minutes in water.
At the crack, I spent at least 30minutes taking pictures of the Emperors who were, as if posing for photography on various positions with some sliding on ice. But there was no sighting of the penguins coming out of water or getting into water. It’s very difficult to identify the difference between the male and the female; since their sizes and body shapes are identical while their height, when matured, reaches up to 122cm and the weight up to 45kgs.
They have a very beautiful thick coat of feathered skin, which helped them to live in ice-cold weather; and the Emperor has the highest density of feathers of any bird species, which is around100 feather per sq inch. This helps them to come out from a depth of 500m at a high speed with the help of trapped air in their feathered skin, which when released, transformed into air bubbles that boost with upward thrust, when returning to the ice surface.
Tom had seen a leopard seal a few days back at the crack, which was one of thenatural enemies of the Penguin. Other is the killer whale. Later, we walked to the colony. It appeared to me that there were more than two thousand penguins at the colony with hundreds of chicks of 3-4months old. But, according to Dr. Tom Hart, researcher on Emperor Penguins from the Oxford University, UK, who was with us on the tour, told me that he had counted up to 1500pairs at the Gould Bay, while the total population in Antarctica is around 240000pairs as per the survey done via Satellite.
One could spend hours at the colony, watching the movements of the penguins, especially when the chicks were pointing their head upright, calling for food from their mother; and how the mothers fed them with the food that was regurgitate in their body which was brought from the sea. Although the light was very bright, taking pictures was not easy with the freezing cold weather and wind. They breed at the age of three and the cycle begins in Antarctic winter, in March and April. Sometimes they walk up to 50-100kms for nesting from the edge of the ice pack. The female lays a single egg in May/early June and the egg is transferred to the male while the female goes to the sea in search of food for the expected new born; and comes back in 60 days just before the eggs hatched.
I spent five hours at the colony before returning to the camp. Since there was 24hour day light in Antarctica in the summer months, I was told that the best time to take picture was around 2am.
On the following morning, after breakfast, I went with Tom to the Crack. It had widened itself compared to the previous day. I decided to stay at the crack instead of going to the colony. The penguins were on both sides of the crack. To my luck, after spending two hours under freezing cold, it was at around 11.30am, that penguins one by one at regular intervals, came out of water from the crack like a bullet with an unimaginable speed; even with the speed of 12 frames per sec on my camera, I had the difficulty of capturing good images of the penguins that were forcing out from the water and landed on ice surface. I also noticed the air bubbles created from the feathered skin in water which helped the penguins to land on ice surface without much difficulty. Also, this speed was an advantage to the Emperor to escape from the leopard seals in water. I was back at the camp for lunch by 1pm.
Most of us decided to go back to the colony around 11pm on the same day. The images I had taken after 12pm had the better colour compared to the ones taken during the day. We came back to the camp around 2am.
Although we planned to stay at the Gould Bay for three nights, the camp manager informed us that it would be better to go back to Union Glacier base on the 3rd afternoon since the weather was good to fly back. We all agreed because we had taken many pictures of the penguins that we needed. However, on the 3rd morning, I went to the crack with Tom while some went to the colony for our last look at the “Icon of Antarctica”.
It was around 4pm we took the flight back to the Union Glacier. Later, on the same day, we boarded the Russian Jet, passenger/cargo plane, which took off just after midnight from the blue ice runway in Antarctica to land in Punta Arenas in Chile on the 4th early morning.
Since, I came to Punta Arenas two days earlier than expected, I had the opportunity to spent three nights at Torres del Paine National Park, 300km from Punta Arenas. Although, I tried to see one of the rare cats to photograph, the Puma (Cougar) also known as the mountain lion, but failed. However, I had an opportunity of seeing the birds of prey, the Andean Condor and the Black-Chested Buzzard Eagle.
On the 13th December 2013,I returned to Sri Lanka after a successful tour to South Pole and to Emperor colony at Gould Bay in Antarctica. My grandchildren were at the airport to greet the 1st Sri Lankan to North and South Pole of the Planet Earth.