Watching thousands of King Penguins going about their daily lives, many weighing in at around 15kg and standing around 1m high, is “a once seen never forgotten” experience.
On a 24 day small group photography tour to Antarctica in 2013, the days were exciting and diverse. Antarctica – the White Continent – is definitely one of those “see before you die” places and Joe Van Os is the man to take you there.
One of many amazing days started with a zodiac landing at Salisbury Plains. Also known as the Jewel in the Crown of South Georgia and home to some 100,000 pairs of breeding King Penguins.
Our disappointment at not calling into St Andrew’s Bay the previous day because of bad weather was overcome the instant we were chatting with these Salisbury Plains residents. (Although watching hundreds of King Penguins porpoising around the ship the day had kept everyone entertained.)
Zodiac Landing Among Fur and Elephant Seals
Landing was on a steep and stony beach with masses of male Fur and Elephant seals scattered around the area. Every bull seal was defending their chosen position in grumpy readiness for the arrival of the cows at the end of November.
We’d been warned not to walk too close to the Fur seals because they weren’t in the best of moods and if upset could outrun any of us!
Piling out of the zodiac there was much excitement at the first pair of the King Penguins we came across. They were happy to pose for photos and all cameras were clicking away. Then our professional photographer guide told us to save our memory card as there were just a “few” more penguins around the corner.
Sure enough, around a bend on the beach about 200 metres away there were mega thousands of them!
Photogenic King Penguins
Half the population were chicks and the other half parent penguins. The chicks were the same size as their Mums and Dads but hadn’t yet shed their fluffy feathers.
Absolutely nothing can compare with these inquisitive little creatures. They just walk up to you and stick their beaks in your hands and up to your face.
Four hours were spent walking around and socialising with these curious characters and watching their antics and daily routine.
They would swim out sea, surf in, walk to and fro along the beach and dive back into the water for a bath. This, together with their curious manner of walking, provided lots of entertainment and photo opportunities.
During our time on shore we experienced all seasons. There was sun, rain, rainbows, sleet, snow, hail, freezing cold wind and warm winds! But, the enjoyment of being surrounded by our King Penguin pals took our minds of any discomfort.
Being in Antarctica at the end of November meant we were in the middle of the early breeding season and strong penguin poo was in abundance.
We were warned there were many bogs that look like grass and one poor guy went down to his armpits in one of these. Both himself and his camera were a bit of a mess and took a LOT of cleaning – gladly both survived the ordeal.
A King Penguin Flipper Blow
We also saw a few “flipper blows” which is where one King Penguin hits another quite aggressively, obviously with is flipper. This wasn’t the “hello mate, how are you” greeting I first thought but territorial behavior meaning – find your own bird!
A King Penguin generally moults one month after breeding – they get quite grumpy during this time because their skin is so itchy.
Did you know?
- The King Penguins have no need for a nest apparently – they lay just one egg at a time and carry it around on their feet! The egg is shuffled backwards and forwards between the feet of Mum and Dad for about 55 days. The one without the egg takes off to sea to look for food.
- Four layers of feathers keep King Penguins warm during the really freezing cold times.
- Emperor Penguins of “Happy Feet” fame are the largest breed and live further inland on the Antarctic continent. They look the same as the King Penguins (the second largest breed) but are bigger.
What to take on an Antarctic visit:
Fact: It’s super important to keep your head, hands and feet warm at all times. These are the bits that lose heat quickly.
- Wellington boots that come at least up to the knee. Otherwise when getting out of zodiacs the water will slosh into your boots!
- Strong water and windproof trousers. (My cheap version split after the third day and I was reduced to making the seams stronger with duct tape . This didn’t work so a garbage bag was raided from the kitchen to wear over the torn trousers like a skirt. Not the most attractive look!)
- Warm wind and water proof jacket and trousers – waterproof and breathable. These need to be large enough to fit thick woollen jumpers/clothing underneath. I bought a size larger– as much as my ego was bruised in doing this! NB – My cheap trousers split after the third day and I was reduced to making the seams stronger with duct tape This didn’t work so a garbage bag was raided from the kitchen to wear over the torn trousers like a skirt. Not the most attractive look! Better to buy quality jackets and trousers)
- Windproof warm gloves or mittens. (Mittens can be pulled over the warm gloves)
- Warm scarf or neck warmer
- 2 pairs of long woollen underwear, tops and bottoms – preferably Merino
- 3 pairs of woollen socks
- 3 long sleeve tops, shirts.
- Sunscreen and lip salve. You can get burnt very easily with the reflection off the snow on a sunny day.
This is the outdoor list. When indoors your usual casual clothes are all you need, e.g. on the ship.
- Spare batteries are needed as they go flat quickly in the cold – keep them in a pocket close to your body
- Rain/snow cover for your camera that still allows the lens to protrude for taking photos
- Airtight plastic bag with you that fits your camera – the moisture creeps in from everywhere