I was lying in the pitch black of my Antarctica cruise ship cabin when we felt the ship stop.
Finally, it is time to see the Antarctic penguins.
Cautiously, I turned on the light and looked at my roommate with wide-eyes. We had finally made it to the final continent; though not my final continent because I seem to be going about this world travel thing in a haphazard way.
The loudspeaker came on instructing us to head to the mudroom and suit up. It was comical to see a group of almost a hundred grown adults crammed into a tiny space attempting to jam every inch of exposed skin into sixty layers of clothing while practically vibrating with excitement.
Visiting Antarctica is a strange idea for me. While I had no idea what to really expect, my expectations were high. After all of the headaches and fuss, after the struggle to get there, I did not want to be disappointed.
I struggled into my parka and thick rubber boots and half waddled down to board the zodiac.
The First Sightings of Antarctic Penguins
In a way, my first time stepping foot in Antarctica was perfect. It was freezing cold and raining miserably. The wind was howling as we struggled off of the zodiacs to put our feet on ice and snow.
I gazed around in wonder; there were penguins everywhere.
For whatever reason, in my mind these tiny animals would be graceful, sleek little things going about their business as if we weren't there. In truth, they were the most ridiculous things I've ever seen.
Ignoring IATO protocol, they hopped and stumbled onto their bellies to gawk at the appearance of us silly beasts in our bright yellow parkas. Heads cocked to the side, they watched us watching them before appearing to decide we were far less interesting than expected and going back to the business of being a penguin.
The IATO is the organization that regulates everything Antarctica- from the number of people allowed off the ship onto the ice at a time to how close we were allowed to get to the penguins (5m). The penguins haven't signed the treaty and thus do as they please.
They're also quite ingenious and adapt quickly to our presence. We would carve stairs in the ice to help the less physically able passengers get from the beach to the snowdrifts, only to have to relinquish them to the penguins fifteen minutes later because they preferred the ease of wobbling up stairs to their penguin method of jumping up the ice.
I had to admire their laziness.
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Four Breeds of Penguins in Antarctica
On our trip to the South Shetland Islands and the tip of the continent, we encountered four breeds of penguin. Chinstrap and Gentoo penguin colonies abound in those areas, but we were also lucky enough to come across one lone Macaroni penguin at one point, and another solo Adelie penguin at another.
The Macaroni penguin sighting was the highlight of my trip. Nicknamed Kevin, one solo Macaroni penguin has been returning annually to a Chinstrap colony, hundreds of miles from his own kind.
Nobody has any proven theories of why he does this or whether he's simply lost. With a bright yellow crest on his head, he looked quite the king among his peasants, albeit a sad king.
Penguin breeds, with the exception of when in captivity, do not cross breed. Their calls do not align either, so in a Chinstrap colony, it's like Kevin speaks another language. Without a mate, he goes through the process of trying to build a nest year after year for no real reason.
It's quite the sad sight, watching him leave his rock pile to procure more stones along the shore as all of the other penguins rush in to steal from the unguarded nest. For every rock he returned with, his nest seemed to have lost three.
Sad or not, he was captivating to me and I spent the better part of an hour watching him.
The Antarctic tourist season runs from November through March, the Antarctic summer. Each month offers a different view of the penguin lifecycle. When I went it was the beginning of summer; snow was everywhere still and penguins were in the process of courtship and nest building. One or two had begun to lay eggs.
The chicks often hatch in December, and January is the best time of year to see penguin chicks. While I missed out of the comical baby penguins, I was happy with my choice to see Antarctica all snowy and fresh. Later on in the season, the snow is mostly gone and the penguin colonies are surrounded by rocks and fecal matter. I've heard the smell is quite something else.
No matter the time of the year you travel to Antarctica, there's something for everyone.
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