The International Polar Foundation’s Princess Elisabeth station got a breakthrough last month when they discovered the largest ever emperor penguin colony in Antarctica.
Researchers from the British Antarctic survey had earlier identified the colony through satellite imaging. However, these images did not show the penguins very clearly, but the indications of their presence were clearly visible through the excrements on the ice.
For expedition leader Alain Hubert it was a dream come true to finally witness such a large colony of Emperor Penguins so near the Princess Elisabeth station. The explorer who has spent seven seasons in Antarctica was sure that a colony existed near the coastline.
“When you go on the coast,” explained the Belgian explorer, “after ten minutes, penguins come out of the water to look at who you are and what you are doing.”
Hubert and his team had a clue of the probable location from the satellite images. When during an ice research the explorers had to be at a point about 37 miles (60 Km) of this location, they decided to investigate further.
The team hopped on their snow mobiles traversed steep crevasses from the continent’s cliffs down to the ice shelf, which has been shifting 650 feet (200 meters) toward the sea each year and finally came up to the colony on 3rd December at 11.00 pm.
The sun was still shining in the Antarctic summer and spread out on the ice was a vast colony of almost 9,000 Emperor Penguins, with more than three-quarters of them being chicks.
Hubert says that despite his polar experience, this was the first time he witnessed such a mass congregation of penguins.
“You can approach them,” he said. “When you talk to them, it’s like they are listening to you.”
He now hopes the penguins will be able to aid researchers to study the affect of climate change on their population and colony size.
Emperor penguins largely depend on the sea ice for their chicks to be born and strong enough to fend for themselves. If the sea ice breaks before the chicks can grow older, they could easily drown. As climate change is rapidly shrinking sea ice, the peril of large population destruction of these penguins is therefore felt.
Hubert however is very hopeful that his new friends will survive the dangers. He found their nursery on top of an underwater rift, where the sea ice is less likely to melt.
“They are quite clever, these animals.”