Penguins In The Backyard

Freeze Frame: Sights, Sounds And Science From The Bottom Of The World: NPR science producer Jason Orfanon guest blogs as he journeys to the Antarctic Peninsula. Keep up with him on Twitter at @jorfanon. And view the whole series page.

By Jason Orfanon

A group of gentoo penguins pays a visit to Palmer Station. i

A group of gentoo penguins pays a visit to Palmer Station. Gentoo populations have increased since the early 1990s, a change that scientists attribute to rising temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula. (Jason Orfanon/NPR) hide caption

itoggle caption
A group of gentoo penguins pays a visit to Palmer Station.

A group of gentoo penguins pays a visit to Palmer Station. Gentoo populations have increased since the early 1990s, a change that scientists attribute to rising temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula. (Jason Orfanon/NPR)

Palmer Station sits on a scenic piece of the Antarctic Peninsula called Anvers Island. On one side of us sits the massive Marr Ice Piedmont, a glacier 2,000 feet thick at its center. On our other three sides are the waters of the Southern Ocean, home to a variety of rugged wildlife that can withstand Antarctica's icy extremes.

Wildlife is very much a part of Palmer Station. When the wind comes in from the northwest, you can smell the elephant seals on nearby Elephant Rock. Humpback whales regularly cruise by the camp in search of krill, and leopard seals have been known to gnaw on Palmer's boats, much to the chagrin of the boating coordinator.

Of all the wildlife, the penguins are the most pervasive, especially Adelies, gentoos, and chinstraps. You can see them swimming in groups, leaping out of the water like little tuxedoed dolphins. On the nearby islands, they gather in large colonies to breed. And occasionally — I can attest to this — you bump into them on the way to lunch.

That's what happened to me yesterday. As I walked past the camp's pump station, I heard a gooselike "honk." Down by the water's edge, hidden behind an embankment of snow and rock, were a dozen or so gentoo penguins.

A gentoo penguin makes its way up a large rock. i

A gentoo penguin makes its way up a large rock. Penguins can't fly, but they use their strong wings to propel themselves quickly through the water. (Jason Orfanon/NPR) hide caption

itoggle caption
A gentoo penguin makes its way up a large rock.

A gentoo penguin makes its way up a large rock. Penguins can't fly, but they use their strong wings to propel themselves quickly through the water. (Jason Orfanon/NPR)

You can distinguish gentoos by their orange beaks and the white spots above their eyes. They've traditionally nested farther north, around the Falkland, South Georgia and South Shetland islands. But more and more since the early 1990s, they've been moving south onto the Antarctic Peninsula.

Kristen Gorman, a graduate researcher here who has been studying the penguins near Palmer for five seasons, says the arrival of gentoos on the Antarctic Peninsula is related to rising temperatures. "As it has warmed along the peninsula over 30 to 50 years, the penguin community has changed," she says. Temperatures on the peninsula have risen by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years, making conditions more welcoming to gentoo penguins from the north.

These gentoos seemed relaxed, basking in the sun with their eyes closed. I crept out on some nearby rocks, and they hardly noticed me. Hundreds of photos later (yes, hundreds — it's a problem), they seemed downright uninterested in me and the small clicking machine I kept pointing at them.

Eventually, hunger got the best of me, and I headed to the galley to catch the tail end of lunch. Not only did I get some great penguin shots, but I also learned a valuable lesson: It pays to always carry a camera around here. You never know where wildlife will turn up.

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