Antarctica - Part 2

...More about the Marco Polo and all you never wanted to know about Penguins

by Kay McCarte

Cartoon of Chinstrap Penguin by Russ Priestley

Perhaps a little bit about the Marco Polo is in order. It is a medium-sized cruise ship which was built in the USSR and sold to the Orient Lines after the breakup of the Soviet Union. It has a steel-enforced hull for plowing through pack ice in the Antarctic Ocean.  

It carries 800 passengers, but on Antarctic expeditions it carries only 400 passengers, plus the crew. First of all, food, water and fuel have to last for 24 days. There are no ports to restock supplies between Punta Arenas and Christchurch, New Zealand. Secondly, there can be no dumping of anything from the ships below the Antarctic Circle.  Everything must be held in containers. I think if a Kleenex blew out of your hand they would consider tossing you overboard to pick it up.

Captain Erik Bjurstedt and Vantage Cruise Director Theresa Karpinski greet Vantage passengers in the Palm Court.

The ship itself has everything the large cruise ships have, but on a smaller scale: the main restaurant, a smaller restaurant for buffet breakfasts and lunches and special dinners, the Ambassador Lounge where the lectures and shows were held, three smaller lounges, gym, casino, library, shops, hairdresser and a small, outside swimming pool (not in use in Antarctica).

Our cabin was fairly good size with two port holes with a bed under each one, and ample storage space.  There was a TV with two movie channels and a satellite channel with news from around the world.  (Would you believe that one of the news stories reported the strange odor in the new Third Harbor Tunnel which was being built in Boston at that time?)

The meals were excellent and the Filipino staff were just great and as nice as could be. Our waiter, Henri, and busboy, Dennis, became friends, helping us make choices of entrees and desserts, and knowing before we did what was needed, water, coffee or whatever.

There were seventeen different countries represented on the passenger list, over ninety of whom were from the United Kingdom. Almost all were retired and, I would guess, the average age of the group would be in their mid-70s. There were married couples, singles, wives without husbands who did not want to travel, husbands without wives who couldn't have cared less about Antarctica, but all with a great sense of adventure.  

During the next three days we were "at sea". We sailed through the Straits of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, where beautiful glaciers dwarfed our ship, into the Drake Passage, which was unexpectedly smooth and calm, towards the Antarctic Peninsula where we were expecting to make our first landings.

We attended lectures on different aspects of life in Antarctica.  One lecture, by Professor Gerald Weber, entitled "The Geology and Geography of Antarctica" explained how millions of years ago Antarctica was part of an enormous tropical land mass called Gondwanaland. Shifting of earth's plates caused sections of this land to drift apart. Over millions of years, one section drifted southerly and formed the continent of Antarctica. That this land was, at one time, tropical has been discovered in cores taken through the ice into the land beneath which showed fossils of ferns and other tropical plants and animals.

Another lecture, by Zoologist Peter Carey, on "Lifestyles of the Antarctic Penguins" was very interesting and enlightening.  He told us that it is thought that penguins were once tropical birds who could fly as well as swim. They are only native to the  Southern Hemisphere and, over millions of years, they have adapted to life on ice and in freezing waters. Although they are unable to fly in the air, they literally fly under water.

There are eight different species of penguins in Antarctica, ranging from the Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adelie penguins, who average about 22 to 24 inches in height, to the Emperors, who attain the height of over three feet.  They really do have legs, with knees, under their feathered coats, which cover layers of flesh and fat to keep them warm in the icy sea, their natural habitat. At the bottom of this coat is a flap for the incubation and nurturing the young. This comes to within two to three inches of the bottom of their legs, limiting their stride and causing them to waddle.

If they are in a hurry, they flip onto their bellies and, using their flippers, they "toboggan" along, mostly on ice, but we did see a few do it on land. They  swim, or fly, underwater for a long distance and then propel themselves out and along the surface of the water to breathe. In this way they pop ashore, whether onto ice packs or onto land.  

They stay on shore only in the summer time for breeding. It is not known where they spend their winters, which is amazing to me as many of the rookeries on the islands and mainland contain as many as 100,000 pairs of penguins, plus their chicks.

Penguins mate for life and return to the same area  each spring. In some areas, if the ice has not broken up, this could mean walking as many as thirty miles over the ice packs, because their food, mainly small crustaceans called krill, is found only in the ocean waters.

The male arrives about a week before the female and prepares the nest. Among the Chinstraps and Gentoos (the only species we were able to visit) the nest is made up of rocks, the only material available. The nests are situated fairly close to each other--close enough for protection from skuas (scavenger birds like our seagulls) and far enough away to avoid fighting, as they are very territorial about their space.

When the female arrives, about a week later, she calls for her mate, who is calling for her. They recognize each other by their voices. I cannot imagine how they find each other with 200,000 penguins squawking and calling, but then, I am not a penguin.

After the female lays her eggs (usually two) she transfers them from under her flap and feet onto the feet of the male who tucks them under his flap. This must be done within two minutes or the eggs will freeze. The male then incubates the eggs for about 5-6 weeks while she returns to the ocean to feed. A penguin's stomach consists of two parts, one to nourish the bird and the other to process the food to be regurgitated into the mouths of the chicks.

About the time the eggs hatch, the female returns to the nest. The male, who has been fasting all this time, heads for the ocean to feed. Both adults take turns protecting and feeding the chicks. One chick is larger and stronger and gets to the food first. The other gets less food, becomes weaker and often falls prey to the skuas. Penguins only feed their own chicks and do not adopt others whose parents may have become victims of seals or whales while feeding on krill in the open ocean.

The breeding period lasts about l8-20 weeks, during which the chicks grow, develop their new weather-proof coats and are able to swim and feed themselves. The adult's job is done and the young ones are on their own.

To be continued - Next Month - Landings and more Lectures.

April 7, 2000

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