Penguins don’t tend to travel alone. Yet here was one all by itself on the cobblestone flats of Litchfield Island. It was an Adelie, standing knee high and looking like the quintessential penguin: ink black and linen white, with a wide eye and an air of having momentarily forgotten what it was up to. It plucked a pebble from the ground, flung its flippers wide, and toddled away.
This was clearly a young bird. An Adelie needs between five and eight years to learn how to arrange a few hundred pebbles into a passable nest, attract a mate, and get a couple of eggs laid early enough to survive. This bird had only the barest idea of why it had picked up the rock or where it was taking it. One thing was certain: it wasn’t going to build a nest on Litchfield Island. Although this beach once held more than 800 Adelie nests, since 2007 it has been empty and quiet.
A couple of decades earlier, another penguin had clambered up onto a similar beach called Biscoe Point, eight miles away. It was a Gentoo Penguin, a slightly larger and more fashion-forward species, with a white blaze across its eyes and a bill that seemed, in the monochrome of Antarctica, almost unnecessarily red. It soon set to work gathering its own stock of pebbles, and by the time Donna Fraser came by and found it, in the austral summer of 1993, there was a small group of 14 nests underway. They were the first Gentoo Penguin nests ever recorded in the vicinity of Palmer Station.
Fraser took me to that exact spot at Biscoe Point in January 2015. Riding in two Zodiac inflatable boats our team nosed through an ice-choked inlet and tied up to a steel mooring pin embedded in a 10-foot rock face. As I climbed up and looked over the edge, I came face to face with about 30 adult gentoos. Each had a duo of chicks at its feet, their heads snuggled under a parent’s belly, their fuzzy gray behinds collecting snowflakes.
In the distance, gentoos covered every available surface: along the shoreline; on the rocky benches that rose into the mist; behind us to the edge of the blue glacier; and around the horseshoe-shaped inlet to the next point. It was 21 years after the very first gentoo had arrived, and I was looking at about 3,600 nests.
“It was this gigantic ecological aha,” Fraser said of the year-by-year increase. “It was like: We have a few. We have a lot. We have a ton. They’re taking over the world now.” At the same time, Adelie Penguin numbers in the region fell by more than 80 percent.
Donna’s husband, Bill Fraser, has studied penguins at the U.S. research outpost of Palmer Station since the 1970s. Donna joined him in 1991, and the pair—who run the Polar Oceans Research Group from their home in Sheridan, Montana—have studied Palmer’s seabirds ever since. What began as basic research in Antarctic ecology soon turned into front-row seats to a penguin revolution.
This region—the Antarctic Peninsula—is the fastest-warming place on the planet. Average winter temperatures are up 12°F over the last 65 years (that’s five times the average global rise). No clearer example exists in the world of the pace at which climate change is coming around the curve at us.
“It’s not so much that it matters if one penguin replaces another,” Donna said. “I’m not going to weep over the death of 10 Adelies or 100 Adelies, or in this case thousands of Adelies. But why are they going?” If we don’t ask that, she said, “We’re missing the bigger picture.”
To the End of the World
Palmer Station—where I spent five weeks in early 2015 writing about National Science Foundation research—lies near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, 700 miles due south of Tierra del Fuego. Getting there requires making your way to Punta Arenas, Chile; rubbing a toe on the Ferdinand Magellan statue for luck; and then crossing the Drake Passage on an icebreaker.
The southward voyage takes a week—a day to get clear of Argentina, three days without sight of land, a day to get used to icebergs, and then a couple of days to adjust to the scale of Antarctica as the South Shetland Islands slip astern. These are days filled with humpback whales rolling at the surface; jagged peaks towering overhead, permanently capped with a schmear of snowpack 50 feet thick; and the orange-pink rays of the sun lighting clouds at 1:00 a.m.
When Palmer Station comes into view, it’s an outpost of four main buildings, a couple of fuel tanks, and some large, complicated radio antennas. It sits on a bare toe of rock on the south side of 40-mile-long Anvers Island, which is studded with 9,000-foot peaks and draped in an ancient cloak of glaciers. The latitude—64° South—means summer is chilly and wet rather than frigid and dry like the rest of Antarctica.
During the summer research season Palmer is home to 44 people, six Snowy Sheathbills, and a half-dozen leopard seals that occasionally bite holes in the Zodiacs. All field research is done in these little rubber boats, buzzing among islands on a gray-black sea and huddling beneath surly clouds.
The penguin team’s schedule has them visiting 21 islands every three days to study penguins, giant-petrels, skuas, gulls, cormorants, and more. Over the course of my stay at Palmer, I hitchhiked with them whenever I could. Donna told me the story of the penguin revolution over visits to four colonies: Torgersen, Biscoe, Humble, and Litchfield.
Adelie Life at Torgersen
The Zodiac’s rubber nose dimpled as it touched the black rock of Torgersen. Donna stepped ashore and in the same motion dropped a ready-made clove hitch around the mooring pin. We handed over the gear: a case of electronics, a radio antenna, a field kit of bands and zip ties, a cattle marker, and an expensive brand of sticky tape.