Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The most abundant sort of animal that one is likely to see on an Antarctic trip is the penguin.
But there are many species of penguins. Not all are equal in abundance, and neither are they equal in the esteem we accord them in our imagination. The emperor penguins, for example, with their imperial name, and to a lesser extent the king penguins with their regal one, hold pride of place in our minds when we think of penguins. Both, unfortunately, are difficult to see on these voyages. Not that it’s fair for us to love them more.
The other species the guides had told us that we might see were the chinstrap, the gentoo, the Adelie, the rockhopper, the Magellanic, and the macaroni. Looking at and for these penguins, even the commercial tourist becomes a passable amateur naturalist in no time, able to tell one species from the next.
The chinstrap, one of the most abundant species along with the gentoo, has a black band that stretches cheek to cheek under its beak — an actual chinstrap that looks like an enormous grin when the bird looks straight up. The Adelie with its elegantly simple black and white tux is named after a woman: Capt. Jules Dumont d’Urville, French explorer, named the species after his wife Adele. The macaroni is so named because it has fantastic golden eyebrows, and “macaroni” in 18th century English referred to a fancy hairstyle.
In the end we would see mostly chinstraps and gentoos, a few Adelies, with one Magellanic swimming along the ship at one point, and one macaroni on the first place where we made landfall, Half Moon Island.
There was a massive rookery of hundreds of chinstraps flapping their wings about, singing their cacophonous songs now and then. And the guides began saying over the radio that “Kevin” was around. Then they began telling us to go up a hill where the rookery was centered to see “Kevin.” Turned out that they used this code name so that we wouldn’t be disappointed if “Kevin” was in fact not there.
Kevin turned out to be a lone male macaroni penguin amidst the chinstraps, vigorously propositioning a female chinstrap, ignorant of all anti-miscegenation laws. “That’s rare,” one of the guides said later. “You find penguins hanging about with other species. But hybrid penguins are almost unheard of.”
Whatever the species, penguins are curious little creatures, and obviously adorable in their tuxes and moving about with that awkward waddle. You’re not supposed to get too close to the penguins, or any other wildlife, but they’re free to come to you. And penguins are so curious that if the human traveler simply stops and gives them a moment, they may well come over to investigate what the land animal is all about.
I had this happen to me three times on this voyage.
In Mikkelsen Harbor on our fifth day, returning to the landing site, I came upon a few fellow travelers standing still with half a dozen gentoo penguins, obviously not wishing to scare them off. Gingerly I approached them up to the distance I was supposed to keep. Then I crouched down to make myself smaller and thus less threatening in their eyes. The half dozen penguins promptly began coming my way. And right as they jostled about in front of me, I felt a peck in my behind. Not wanting to turn around suddenly and frighten my new avian friends, I asked the other humans: “Did someone just bite me in the ass?”
“Yep,” a chorus arose. And one voice said, “And I got it on film.”
On the last day we were able to make landings before having to head toward South America again, in the morning we stopped on Danco Island. A gentoo penguin, still moulting (shedding his coat for a new one), came over to say hi. I crouched down again, with one hand outstretched. He started pecking at my glove.
Later in the day we made one last landing at Neko Harbor, named after an old Japanese whaling ship. Again a curious gentoo came over, again I crouched down. He brushed up against my thigh. But just then a fellow traveler, an older woman who seemed not to have noticed the moment I was having with my new penguin friend, marched right by with determined steps. The penguin, in a flurry of terror, ran a few feet up the hillside. Under my breath I cursed the woman.
But once she was gone the penguin returned. This time I decided to take off one glove. The adorable creature waddled up and began biting my fingers. Without teeth, his beak felt like a little vice that hurt only slightly. Satisfied with my fingers, he kept moving forward and began pecking at my thighs and my torso so that he and I were now essentially locked in an embrace. He was between my knees, and my open palm was now on his back. He was a warm little bundle, warmer than I expected. But even as I marveled at his warmth, I feared that he might begin pecking at my crotch. Fingers are one thing.
Luckily he never did.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."