A Guide’s Take on the Emperor Penguins of Snow Hill Island

by Bruce Robinson Expert story

Life is full of decisions, choices, goals, and dreams. These are the things that drive us to attempt something even when we know the odds of success are low. It was this sense of adventure and hope that brought nearly one hundred passengers to the Weddell Sea in search of the emperor penguins of Snow Hill Island.
A Guide’s Take on the Emperor Penguins of Snow Hill Island

The aspiration for Antarctic adventure

Life is full of decisions, choices, goals, and dreams. These are the things that drive us to attempt something even when we know the odds of success are low. It was this sense of adventure and hope that brought nearly one hundred passengers to the Weddell Sea in search of the emperor penguins of Snow Hill Island.

We were aboard the m/v Ortelius on an exploratory voyage with Oceanwide Expeditions. At Puerto Williams, in the Beagle Channel, we were joined by two helicopters, a team of three pilots, and three mechanics. From there we set our course south across a relatively calm Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. We were accompanied by an impressive number of seabirds, including five species of albatross.

In search of the Snow Hill emperor penguins

The fourth day of the voyage found us sailing through the intense beauty of Antarctic Sound.  In mid-November the vast amount of ice on the sea and glaciated mountains is mind blowing. We enjoyed good weather while we soaked into our memories the ever changing views, continuing south past James Ross Island and into Admiralty Sound. In the afternoon one of the helicopters was readied for a scouting flight to locate the Emperor penguin colony and check sea ice conditions.

It was with great anticipation that we waited for the return of the scout helicopter. We all wanted good news. The expedition leader, Lynn, and assistant expedition leader, Arjen, did indeed return with good news: They had found the breeding colony. Arjen’s aerial photo of thousands of tiny black penguin-dots on the sea ice stirred much excitement during the daily recap. The best news was that the sea ice was in good condition, and therefore it was safe to land a helicopter near the colony. The excitement and anticipation was palpable over dinner as we discussed the following day’s possibilities.

A long-held Antarctic hope

Visiting Antarctica has been a personal dream of mine for as long as I can remember. That dream became reality three years ago when I began working for Oceanwide Expeditions as an expedition guide. During past seasons I was part of many voyages to the Antarctic Peninsula as well as South Georgia. My love for the Antarctic continued to grow with every trip.

From the beginning there was always one voyage that captured my imagination, and I hoped that one day I might have a chance to stand at the edge of an Emperor penguin colony. The idea of an exploratory expedition using helicopters to access a little-known part of the world (and having the chance to experience something that few people ever will) was very intriguing to me.

I had heard stories from other expedition guides and knew that the past four attempts to reach the Snow Hill colony had been unsuccessful. Still, when offered the opportunity to be a guide on this journey, I jumped at the opportunity – and slept with fingers crossed the night before we were to attempt a landing.

Antarctica’s eminently unpredictable weather

Morning arrived with unfortunate news. The wind was blowing at around fifty knots and gusting to over sixty knots. Helicopter operations were impossible. Despite this setback, Antarctica did not disappoint. Snow began to fall and we spent the day on the ship in Admiralty Sound in very white and dramatic surroundings.

We had occasional glimpses of individual Emperor penguins as well as small groups of Adélie penguins on the sea ice. Snow petrels were nearly always in sight of the ship, flying effortlessly against the strong winds while Weddell seals patrolled the edge of the sea ice. Though it’s unreasonable to expect perfect conditions during Antarctica cruises, all of us nonetheless saw much of the wildlife Antarctica has to offer.

But then, the following morning…

The following morning, I stepped onto the outer deck of the ship and was greeted by a totally different scenario: The snow had stopped, the wind had died down, the sea was calm, and the sun was attempting to peak through the clouds. A large smile crept across my face, as I knew everything was coming together. This was it, the window of opportunity. The helicopters were removed from the hangar and prepared for operations. Shortly after breakfast we began mustering passengers in their pre-established groups, and soon flights were underway to the Emperor penguin colony.

A few facts about emperor penguins

The Snow Hill Emperor penguin colony was discovered in the mid-1990’s and is the northernmost penguin breeding colony in Antarctica. Despite being sometimes inaccessible, it quickly became a favorite destination of Weddell Sea cruises.

Emperors arrive on the fast ice from March to April and are very fat, up to 40 kg (88 pounds). The penguins pair off and courtship begins, involving trumpeting calls and displays of their golden neck patches. Females lay a single egg between May and June, during the dead of winter and the harshest weather. Males incubate the eggs on their feet for over two months.

During this time, they do not eat and loose about 45% of their body weight. Females are meanwhile feeding out to sea and only return around the time the chicks are hatching. At this point, both parents go out to feed and return regularly to feed the chicks. While they are waiting for a meal, chicks huddle together in groups for warmth. At about 150 days, they molt into their juvenile plumage.  

Reaching the rookery, realizing a dream

I was still working on the ship when the helicopters began returning with the first groups. I could tell by the huge smiles and excited chatter that this expedition was a success. Eventually it was time for my group to climb into the chopper and fly to the colony. I was giddy with anticipation, and the quick flight over the alien landscape of the pack ice was exhilarating. Then I saw them, a cluster of tiny black dots on the ice!

The helicopter landed at the emergency basecamp, behind a large iceberg that had been trapped in the sea ice. An easy walk led us to the edge of an Emperor penguin colony of more than 10,000 individuals. In all honesty, I may have shed a tear or two of joy that eventually got frozen in my beard. This was no longer a dream. This was real, it was really happening. I stood there in awe for a few moments, just looking at the masses of penguins stretched out as far as I could see, listening to the incredible noises.

As I surveyed the seemingly chaotic scene, the first thing I was drawn to were the clusters of ridiculously cute chicks. They seemed to always be interacting with each other in a playful fashion and were endlessly entertaining. The adults were so regal, the way they moved and the beauty of their contrasting plumage. “Emperor” is truly a fitting name for these majestic creatures.

An unforgettable experience of Antarctica

All passengers returned to the ship for lunch. Miraculously, the weather held calm and we were able to repeat helicopter operations again in the afternoon. Everyone had a second chance to stand amidst the charismatic Emperor penguins. In the evening the bar was abuzz with ecstatic people reliving favorite moments, sharing photos and videos. The magic of this experience will be forever etched in our memories.

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