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 1st of December 2013 that 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 Penguins on our 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 my first glimpse of the Penguins from the air. The flight touched down on ice at 2.15 pm at the Gould Bay campsite of the ANI where we were to spend three nights.
GPS readings on my camera were latitude- S77 deg 44’, longitude-W47 deg 32’ with an altitude of 6.20 meters above sea level. The temperature was 5 deg C below zero. There were a few Penguins scattered in the vicinity of the camp. The camp was situated on an ice sheet covering land but the surrounding ocean bay was also frozen. The light was very good for photography with clear skies.
The facilities at the campsite were very basic. I had to share my tent with a photographer from Hong Kong, who had travelled to many parts of the world for wildlife photography including Sri Lanka.
Within minutes after moving my luggage and the sleeping bag to my tent, I was ready to go and see the Emperor Penguins. After all, this is what I have been longing to do for the last three years. Having decided to publish a book on 50 years of wild life photography, I wanted to include the Emperor and dedicate a chapter to the Icon of Antarctica.
We were allotted a guide, Tom, to lead us to the Penguin colony located 2.5 miles from the camp. I used a sled to move my heavy camera equipment.
Half way to the colony there was a crack in the ice which was about a meter in width and a few Penguins were close to it. Tom explained that the ice at the crack is about 2 to 3 meters in depth and the Penguins dive into the water through the crack to go in search of food for their survival as well as to feed their four months old chicks. The Penguins could dive up to a depth of 500 meters, with an average speed of 17 mph. Their food mainly consists of fish while crustaceans such as Krill and also Cephalopods that include Squid are all part of their diet. They can hold their breath up to 20 minutes in water.
Spending close to 30 minutes at the crack, I captured many poses of the Emperors. They are a treat to watch and photograph, lining up and posing and sometimes sliding on ice. I was hoping to film them coming out of the water or getting into the water but didn’t get an opportunity to do so.
It’s very difficult to identify the male from the female as their size and body shape are identical. Their height, when matured, reaches up to 122 cm and they weigh up to 45 kgs. Emperors have a very beautiful thick coat of feathered skin, which help them to live in ice-cold weather. It has the highest density of feathers of any bird species, which is around 100 feathers per square inch. This helps them to come out from a depth of 500 meters at high speed with the assistance of trapped air in their feathered skin, which when released transforms into air bubbles that boost the upward thrust.
Tom had seen a Leopard Seal a few days back at the crack, which is one of the natural enemies of the Penguin. Other is the Killer Whale.
As we continued walking to the colony it seemed to me that there may be more than 2,000 Penguins at the colony with hundreds of 3 to 4 month old chicks. I was told by Dr. Tom Hart, a researcher on Emperor Penguins from the Oxford University, UK, who was with us on the tour, that he had once counted up to 1,500 pairs at Gould Bay, while the total population in Antarctica is around 240,000 pairs as per the survey done via satellite.
One could spend hours at the colony watching the Penguins. It was fascinating to observe how the chicks turn their head upright, calling for food from their mother and how the mothers regurgitate food to feed the young. Although the light was very bright taking pictures was not easy in the freezing cold and windy weather.
Penguins breed at the age of three and the cycle begins in the Antarctic winter in March and April. Sometimes they walk up to 50 to 100 km for nesting from the edge of the ice pack. The female lays a single egg in May/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 hatch.
I spent five hours at the colony before returning to the camp. Since there was 24 hours of day light in Antarctica in the summer months, I was told that the best time to take pictures was at around 2 am.
The following morning after breakfast, I went with Tom to the crack. It had widened 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. After spending two hours in the freezing cold, at around 11.30 am Penguins started to come out of the water one by one at regular intervals through the crack. They emerge from the water at an astonishing speed, like bullets. Even with the speed of 12 frames per sec on my camera, I had difficulty in capturing good quality images of the penguins that were shooting out from the water and landing on the ice surface. Watching them keenly in flight I could see the air bubbles created from the feathered skin which helped them to land on the ice surface without much difficulty. I was told that the speed has a further advantage to the Emperor to escape from the Leopard Seals in the water. Having satisfied my desire of seeing the Emperor in all its glory, I was back at the camp for lunch by 1 pm.
Most of us decided to go back to the colony around 11 pm on the same day. It turned out that the images I had taken after 12 had better colour compared to the ones taken during the day. We came back to the camp around 2 am.
Although we had planned to stay at Gould Bay for three nights, the camp manager advised that it would be better to go back to Union Glacier Base on the 3rd afternoon while the weather was still good to fly. We all agreed as we had already taken plenty of pictures of the Penguins. The morning before we departed, I went back to the crack with Tom while some went to the colony for a last look at the “Icon of Antarctica”.
It was around 4 pm when we took the flight back to Union Glacier. Later on the same day, we boarded the Russian passenger/cargo plane, which took off just after midnight from the blue ice runway in the Antarctic to land in Punta Arenas in Chile on the 4th of December, early morning.
Since I returned to Punta Arenas two days earlier than planned I had the opportunity to spend three nights at Torres del Paine National Park, 300 km from Punta Arenas. Although I was hoping to see one of the rare cats to photograph, the Puma (Cougar), also known as the Mountain Lion, it was not to be. However, I did get to see the birds of prey – the Andean Condor and the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle.
On 13th December 2013, I returned to Sri Lanka after a successful tour to South Pole and to the Emperor Colony at Gould Bay in Antarctica. My grandchildren were at the airport to greet me, the First Sri Lankan to reach both the North and South Poles of Planet Earth.