Tag Archives: penguins

Antarctica: The Summertime Penguin Guide

In the peninsular and continental regions the National Geographic Explorer took us, summertime brings adelies, gentoos, chinstraps and the rare emperor penguin. How to tell them apart? Here’s a nifty guide. (Hint: It’s not hard.)

 

On board the National Geographic Explorer, a poster plots penguin species' locations. The Antarctic Peninsula (and colder temps) is at the bottom left.

 

The Adelie

At half the size of an emperor penguin, an adelie is one of the smallest penguin species. They are entirely black and white, and prefer colder climates.

The Gentoo

The easiest way to tell a gentoo apart from other penguin species is by the orange beak. They prefer moderate climates and can be found on the Falkland Islands and South Georgia as well as the Antarctic Peninsula.

The Chinstrap

Chinstraps are small like adelies, but like to hang out in sub-Antarctic climates like the gentoos. As adorable as they are, they are among the meanest penguin species.

The Emperor

Rarely seen on expeditions because they prefer colder inland climates, emperor penguins have a later mating period, making their chicks less likely to survive the winter and more worthy of their own Morgan Freeman-approved documentary. We were lucky enough to spot two emperors on different days, hunting alone near the water’s edge on the continent.

As Antarctica approaches summer, these birds will be making their appearances once again. TKGO’s Antarctica Week(s) may be coming to a close, but you’ll see plenty more in the Shot of the Week every Sunday. If you’re having withdrawal, just send me an email at Tara(at)TaraAndKarinaGoOut.com and we’ll see if we can make some of these photos into wallpaper for your apartment.

Happy exploring!

Tara for TKGO

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Antarctica: The Research

That little red dot in the bottom right hand corner? That’s a hut.

Antarctica dwarfs all human activity. Even a Frank Lloyd Wright, in place of that little red shack, doesn’t stand a chance against these towers of ice and snow. And this might be the reason why marine biologists, naturalists, geologists, penguin researchers and explorers love Antarctica more than Heidi Montag loves plastic surgery.

 

December 22, 2006: The greatest igneous rock your 7th grade science teacher never showed you is actually a landmass, and a geologist's dream.

 

Our expedition offered a little of everything. Dennis, a marine biologist, reported his findings in videos and photos every day after scuba diving to the bottom of the ocean. Jason Kelley, a geologist and naturalist, explained how the results of volcanic activity can be seen most clearly in Antarctica, where land is relatively unchanged since its formation because of a lack of vegetation.

Mike Polito, one of the many penguin researchers and a grad student at the time, taught me how to count penguins (with a counter) and use the results to track each species’ migration patterns.

Sometimes counting penguins is hard…

…and sometimes it’s too easy.

On the other end of the spectrum is Soames Summerhays, a National Geographic IMAX documentary filmmaker, who was filming a documentary on the continent and its wildlife. (As far as I am aware, it has not yet been released.) The two of us co-wrote a daily expedition report (DER) for the National Geographic ship logs about our day in Brown Bluff.

Research bases

Research bases became a way for countries to lay claim over different areas of Antarctica in the 1800s and 1900s. Chile, Argentina and Great Britain fought for over a century over borders in Patagonia and on the continent, and all still lay claim to overlapping territories. But who’s counting now, when neither Chile nor Argentina have active research bases in Antarctica?

 

International graffiti on old silos near the 1920's-era Chilean base

 

As there is no one able to haul off huge metal silos (not to mention nowhere to recycle them), this abandoned 1920’s-era Chilean research station is left to rust and wear in the elements.

 

An abandoned boat in the volcanic crater

 

This once-thriving Chilean base sits in the bed of a volcanic crater. The choice was ideal because the sea is calm, the rocks break the wind, and icebergs and debris don’t generally make it that far.

Port Lockroy

The Chileans and Argentinians don’t have research bases, but the British do! Port Lockroy is an active British research station on an island in the Antarctic Peninsula, and it’s the only active base left on the continent.

 

Researchers bunk in this room at Port Lockroy.

 

The base has been declared a historical monument and is funded entirely by people like me who bought dozens of penguin keychains and Antarctica postcards in the gift shop. It’s run by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, a charity set up in 1993 to restore the station’s buildings and preserve human history in the Antarctic.

 

Beware the strong winds! (They blew a little kid right off this entrance ramp to Port Lockroy and into a patch of nesting penguins to left, below the frame. Oops.)

 

For more of what’s going on now at Port Lockroy, check out the UKAHT’s Port Lockroy Diaries, written by researchers and logged on the site as far back as 2003. Read the most recent Port Lockroy entry to find out how researchers prep for four months at the south pole. Now how do we get jobs on that base…

Tara for TKGO

Antarctica: An Introduction

It’s common enough to find yourself drowning in adjectives when asked to describe any locale. It is rare, however, when not a single word exists capable of adequately embodying any part of a place, let alone an entire continent. Antarctica is that loss for words, whether you’ve been or not. No adjective does it justice, so for most people it is a few New York Times articles, global climate change bar graphs, calendars with photos of penguins and an 80-minute love story narrated by Morgan Freeman. For me, it has become a feeling.

Antarctica is no longer the “hidden gem” of tourist destinations, as it was when I went with my adventurous grandmother in December of 2006. In the last few years, Antarctica has undoubtedly become one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations. In 1992/1993, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) recorded fewer than 7,000 tourists, staff and crew landing on the Antarctic peninsula or continent. During the 2009/2010 season, over 59,000 landed. (Even by the time I had gone in 2006/2007, Antarctic tourism nearly doubled since 2002/2003.) Though the U.S. in 2009 tried unsuccessfully to cap the number of tourists that could arrive on the continent, the IAATO believes this category of niche tourism won’t continue to expand at this rate and responsible tourism actually helps awareness and research efforts.

So how can you get yourself there?

Antarctica is not a weekend trip, nor is it a cruise. The Falkland Islands and South Georgia, though beautiful and abundant in bird species, are British territory and not part of the Antarctic continent or peninsula. The only way to get to the continent is on an icebreaker, like the National Geographic Explorer. The best trips are not cruises, but rather expeditions, meaning the itinerary is subject to wild change based on the conditions of the oceans, ice, wildlife and “ports.” The main purpose of most expeditions, especially to Antarctica, is to allow researchers to collect another round of data for their decades-long projects on weather, penguin migration, erosion and other topics. Passengers provide the extra funding necessary to make the trip possible.

Expeditions to the continent generally require a minimum of two weeks to cross the Drake Passage (for which I highly recommend you pop seasickness pills like Tic Tacs), explore the outlying islands, break through frozen ocean water, reach a few open parts of the continent and return. Trust me, when the two weeks is up you’ll be begging for more. Despite living in Buenos Aires, New York City, Chicago, Florida and Wisconsin, my screen saver has repeated these Antarctic images and nothing else for almost four years.

While throngs of people spill into Antarctica as vacationing in remote areas becomes popular, “untouched” and “pristine” somehow remain the two most commonly used descriptors. Antarctica deserves more thought (and photos), and that is what you’ll find here in the coming weeks.

I can’t possibly give you the feeling of being on the deck of the National Geographic Explorer and listening to researchers, naturalists and environmentalists burst with excitement over newly documented numbers or a great photo opportunity after returning from excursions each day. But I hope that over the next few weeks, as I post more about the ice formations, polar research and wildlife, I can inspire you to save every dime you have and book this trip. Come back thirsty.

Tara for TKGO