First contact with massive emperor penguin colony

By Paul Harper

Some of the elegant occupants of the newly-discovered colony. Photo / International Polar Foundation/Alain Hubert
Some of the elegant occupants of the newly-discovered colony. Photo / International Polar Foundation/Alain Hubert

Humans have made first contact with a massive emperor penguin colony in east Antarctica.

The location of the colony was discovered in 2009. Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the US National Environment Research Council used satellite imagery to find faecal stains on the ice.

However, it wasn't until last month that the existence of the 9,000-strong colony was confirmed when three experts from Belgium's Princess Elisabeth Antarctica polar research station ventured to the remote colony on the Princess Ragnhild Coast.

Expedition leader Alain Hubert, station chief mechanic Kristof Soete and Swiss mountain guide Raphael Richard had been supporting the work of glaciologists carrying out scientific research on the Derwael Ice Rise, about 50km from the colony and 250km from their research station.

"Since we started operating along Princess Ragnhild Coast we have encountered so many emperor penguins that I was convinced that a colony must be installed somewhere in the east," Hubert said.

"Because we were operating not far from the satellite location, I decided to force the way and try to access this remote and unknown place. The surprise was even more than all I could have expected or dreamed about. I realised while counting the penguins that this was a very populated colony.

"It was almost midnight when we succeeded in finding a way down to the ice through crevasses and approached the first of five groups of more than a thousand individuals, three quarters of which were chicks. This was unforgettable moment."

Hubert and Soete were part of a team supporting scientific research on the Derwael Ice Rise, seeking to gain a better understanding of the rate ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet in the Dronning Maud Land area.

Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species, growing up to 1.2m tall and weighing up to 45kg.

In 2011, a sick emperor penguin found on New Zealand's Kapiti Coast was nursed back to health at Wellington Zoo, before being released back into the southern ocean. A tracking device attached to the penguin fell off at sea, and the fate of the penguin is unknown.

Emperor penguins have been popularised on the big screen, featuring in the documentary March of the Penguins and the animated comedy Happy Feet.

- nzherald.co.nz

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