By Hilke Segbers
Ushuaia, Argentina – Marilyn Monroe would have understood. Stones mean wealth to penguins. And they are willing to travel great distances – and even become thieves – to acquire some pebbles.
Those who wish to observe the tuxedo-feathered creatures collecting stones must travel a great distance themselves. From Europe it is tens of thousands of kilometres to Antarctica, the planet’s coldest and least-developed continent, one whose surface is covered up to 98 per cent by ice. In contrast to the Arctic region, Antarctica does have firm ground beneath the ice – and tiny stones.
From Europe, the journey means a roughly 14-hour flight to Buenos Aires, and from there, another four hours to Tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia is the main port of departure for ship expeditions and cruise ships. About 35 ships travel during the southern hemisphere’s summer from Ushuaia to Antarctica.
The voyages usually range between 13 and 22 days. But this hardly means that the tourists must spend so much time among the eternal ice. After the departure from Ushuaia, the Beagle Canal and then Drake Passage, must be navigated.
The latter, even in the most comfortable of the modern ships, is not the easiest route. Even with the use of anti-sea sickness medications, the dining room of the ship is only half-filled at mealtime. Outside, gale-force winds are whipping up the waves.
The shaky voyage through the heaving seas takes nearly three days. Then the waters are calmer and the first icebergs come into view.
In majestic grandeur, the huge slabs of ice are floating in the deep blue waters. And the closer one approaches these floating islands, more and more tiny black dots appear: penguins.
Those who asked themselves why they bothered during the difficult ride through Drake Passage, now see why they made this journey after all, especially when they spot their first colony of penguins.
One might just smell the odour of the nesting grounds from miles away. The birds themselves often are dirty. But they are also charming to their mates, industrious in building their nests of stones, comical in the way they move about, and elegant once they are swimming in the water.
The first chance to meet the penguins comes on the South Shetland Islands. Half Moon Island is inhabited by a large colony of penguins. From far away one can see the ‘penguin highways’ – the paths which they have tramped in the snow between their nests and the sea.
Visitors land on the island via inflatable boats. And then, standing and facing the birds, they learn something right away: penguins are not fearful creatures. Unperturbed, they waddle along their paths and sit in their nests – no matter how close the humans may approach.
Every visitor has been instructed to keep a distance of at least five metres. But many forget this, so charmed they are by the penguins. ‘Here are two chicks in the nest!’ exclaims a visitor, forgetting the rules and edging closer and closer.
The accompanying crew members don’t think this is funny and quickly command the overzealous visitors to back a distance away from the nests.
Many vessels which offer expedition trips in the Antarctic region have scientists on board, and they adhere to the regulations of IAATO, the association of Antarctic travel organizations. Among the rules is that a bay can only be visited for a maximum of four hours and that no more than 100 people at a time may go on land. Smoking and eating is prohibited. And nothing may be left behind on the ice.
At Port Lockroy, one stops worrying about whether the penguins feel disturbed. In fact, they build their nests virtually right up to the steps leading to the old British naval station. During World War II the British had set up the station together with another one on Deception Island in order to keep tabs on shipping movements.
In 1996 the British Antarctic Heritage Trust renovated Port Lockroy. Since then there has been a museum, a post office and a souvenir shop. Visitors can even have a penguin seal stamped in their passports.
A further highlight of the trip is the passage through the Lemaire channel. At points narrowing down to 1.6 kilometres, the channel was first sighted in 1873, with the first passage through in 1898. When the sun is shining the slopes of the Antarctic peninsula and of Booth Island are reflected in the 11-kilometre-long channel, in which countless icebergs are drifting.
At the end of the cruise visitors have become something of an expert on penguins. They have learned that penguins do not need to fear any animals of prey on land, but certainly must watch out for leopard seals, toothed whales, skuas and petrels. And that most of the penguins have a passion for stones. So it is a good rule that visitors may take nothing back with them. Not even pebbles.