Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Every once in awhile, a rumor would make its way around town—town being McMurdo Station, on Antarctica’s Ross Island—that a penguin or two had wandered into our rough-hewn hamlet. Not being accustomed to seeing much besides humans locomote in these environs, our ears would prick at these reports and we’d rush out on break from the galley to see the little Adelies in their self-important huff and waddle.

The short, fat little black and white birds looked like nattily attired, curious tourists as they poked their beaks around town and we humans watched, rapt, but kept our distance. The best way, though, to see an Adelie was when out on the white, flat, endless expanse of sea ice when you’d see one rushing, Alice and Wonderland White Rabbit-style, headlong toward some very important date for which the bird was, invariably, late.

Other than the Adelie (our immediate corner of the continent lacked the Emperor and Chinook penguins found elsewhere on the Ice), our only other oft-seen cohabitants were the seals and the skua birds.

The seals—fat, grey, impassive yet, in a way, graceful creatures—you’d see sunning and lazing in groups of three or four out on the sea ice. Sometimes pups—from their happy, near dog-like faces you’d understand why they were called that—would be with the adults, who would raise up from their flop and look at you purposefully if you got too close. But we rarely got too close, out of respect for the wild environment and the Antarctic Treaty.

Lastly, the skua birds, or just skuas, were scavengers that looked a bit like dirty gulls and had no natural predators, and so were utterly unafraid of humans. They would walk right up to you, entirely unruffled—or, more likely, if you were carrying food, divebomb you, Ride of the Valkyries-style, when walking between buildings. They were ornery neighbors, but we took it all in stride and enjoyed the chance to see these charming, sometimes cantankerous beasties in their natural habitat—after all, we were the visitors; they, unlike we humans, could survive and indeed thrive on that harsh continent.

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