Everywhere we looked there were penguins. Some were huddled on rocky outcrops, others were waddling together in groups across the snow, while others were diving headfirst into the sea. We had seen three types of penguins on our Antarctic voyage, including chinstrap and Adélie penguins, but the gentoos were the ones that really grabbed my attention. They are beautiful birds, easily recognizable by the white stripe that extends from eye to eye like a bonnet across the top of their heads and their bright orange-red bills. Not only are they striking birds, but they are also very charismatic. The penguins in Antarctica have little fear of people and it’s incredible to watch as they confidently pass by you, sometimes approaching closer out of curiosity. One of my favourite moments of the voyage was when a young gentoo penguin approached me within a few feet and stood looking at me, tilting its head back and forth comically. Sitting in the snow, wrapped up in my warm winter gear, I could have watched the colony of gentoos for hours.
From the group, two penguins in particular caught my attention. They were shuffling across the snow when they suddenly tipped forward onto their bellies. The pair then began to propel themselves across the ice. This behaviour is called tobogganing – where penguins lay on their stomachs and push themselves across the snow and ice using their flippers and feet for propulsion and steering. This mode of transportation is quicker and more efficient than walking for long stretches. As the pair tobogganed across the terrain, I also lay down on my stomach to photograph them. I found that by getting lower to the ground, I was able to capture more of the soft snow in the foreground, blending nicely into their black bodies. The beautiful white backdrop also helped to showcase the loveliness of these birds, especially their brilliant bills.
Antarctica is a truly special and spectacular place. Sadly, it is also changing quite quickly. The west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. This warming is causing shifts in the polar environment, which can have an impact on penguin colonies, specifically changes in the quality and availability of prey and nesting habitats. Although not directly impacting gentoo populations yet, the warming is having an impact on other species of penguin.
Gentoo penguins themselves face several threats to survival, including predation by orcas and leopard seals. Gentoo eggs and chicks are also at risk of being devoured by seabirds, such as skuas. While gentoo populations appear to be increasing in the Antarctic Peninsula, they have decreased in other areas possibly due to human-caused pollution or commercial fishing.
For me, this photo captures both the beauty and charm of the gentoo penguin, and my hope is the viewer connects with these animals, reflecting on their intrinsic value and the importance of preserving the extraordinary habitats in which they live.