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The wonders and furies of Antarctica

Stormed In

Carina Gjerdrum


There are times when a hut, even a warm hut in a cold place, can be too small. Ben, Grant, and I have been waiting three days for the winds to release the snow that has thrown a curtain across our windows and obscured our view of icebergs, ocean, and volcano. Yesterday the wind speed reached 110 mph, and we count a solar panel, two tents, and Ben's shoe among the items claimed by the storm. The latter was stolen directly from Ben's foot when he ventured outside without first tying his shoelaces.

On most days, when the sun prevails over the wind, I walk through a colony of 270,000 breeding Adelie penguins, looking for flipper bands. Since 1994, thousands of these birds from four colonies around Ross Island have been banded with uniquely coded bands that can be read using binoculars. The extent to which individuals move between geographically separate colonies-and overlap at feeding areas-is largely unknown and a question our research group hopes to answer. Just the other day we identified a bird here at Cape Crozier that was banded four years ago on the other side of the island, 140 km away as the penguin swims. Most Adelie penguins prefer to return to the place where they hatched, so we are excited about our encounter with a newcomer.

Carina Gjerdrum at work on a storm-free day.
From the higher reaches of the colony on a fair day I can look down towards the water, where columnar icebergs the size of apartment buildings are locked in the sea ice still attached to the beach. Streams of penguins negotiate the maze to reach the water, where they will catch fish and krill to bring back to their hungry nestlings. Orcas share this same sea, as do Weddell seals slumbering on their icy beds while penguins scurry past. The water itself is a deep, cold blue-rich with life just below the surface. Patterned wings of Antarctic Petrels flash by, and the Snow Petrel's pure white plumage looks like a sliver of the iceberg that the bird flies past.

Before this storm settled in, we followed the trail of penguins through that city of ice to a place where I learned the difference between a penguin on land and one in water. We watched as their fat yet perfectly hydrodynamic bodies broke through the water's surface again and again-penguins porpoising together towards the edge of the ice. With one last powerful pull of their flippers, they propelled themselves upwards into the air, landing abruptly not far from where we stood. Without a backward glance, they waddled awkwardly on short legs directly to the chaotic colony, bellies full.

Adélie Penguin.
Oh, we've been stuck in this hut a long time. The strong winds cannot possibly last much longer. I am thinking about Ben's shoe somewhere out there in the vast expanse of the Antarctic landscape and want to go where it has gone. I am ready to feel the cold air fill my lungs, return to the colony, and have the experience take my breath away.