Viewpoints

Curious penguin makes this Antarctic experience magical

When you tell people you’re vacationing in Antarctica, you get strange reactions.

Clearly, many people prefer warmer climates. But for my husband and me, it was a bucket list trip that we had wanted to take for years.

As much as I had read about Antarctica, I couldn’t have imagined the beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife. Antarctica is still being discovered. The stories and descriptions really don’t do it justice.

Earlier this month, we sailed aboard the National Geographic Explorer in waters that were, literally, uncharted and saw more animals than I dreamed possible. Even the scientists from Lindblad who accompanied us were encouraged by the abundance of wildlife, especially so early in the Antarctic summer.

While the rest of the group went for a hike one day, I stayed on the beach, hanging out on the rocks with a small group of penguins. Visitors are not supposed to get too close, but there’s no rule about them approaching you. One gentoo penguin seemed as curious about me as I was about him. He was just a few feet away from me when I remembered to pull out my camera.

Gentoos are covered with dense feathers, about 70-80 per square inch. Standing over 2 feet tall, they’re the third-largest penguin species. I watched my gentoo friend and a handful of his buddies waddle until the water was just above their short little legs. Then, they dove in and all of the awkwardness suddenly disappeared.

Only in the water do they demonstrate the majesty of birds that fly. I watched as they dove to feed and used their flippers to bathe, and then they waddled back out of the water on their large webbed feet.

The penguins’ rookery was hundreds of snow-filled yards away, which meant they had quite a hike in front of them. Many of them didn’t seem in a hurry to return to the rock structures they had built with their mates.

Males and females take turns nesting their eggs, which take about 72 days to hatch. The nests are often very close together to provide even more protection from predators. There’s safety in numbers.

There’s a lot of noise and the distinct smell of guano. I learned firsthand that you could easily find the colony just by following your nose.

During our two-week trip, we saw thousands of penguins, so many that sightings almost became ordinary. Gentoos were the most common, though we saw four species. All except the emperor penguin were abundant. Penguins are just part of the wildlife experience; the continent is rich with whales, seals, birds, krill, sea anemone and lichen.

Few people have the chance to visit Antarctica. Estimates are that about 11,000 people walked on its lands last year. It’s a place where the animals outnumber the humans. After my beach experience, I hope it stays that way.

Cheryl Dell: 916-321-1521, cdell@sacbee.com

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