Everyone loves penguins, but after visiting Antarctica I now have an altered perception of the half fish, half fowl creatures. When wearing black and white, penguins are in their most adorable form. Even after many repeated encounters, both explorers and tourists find it impossible to refrain from snapping obscene quantities of photos of penguins. One early 20th century explorer commented on hearing the continuous clicking of the camera shutter against the backdrop of Antarctic silence every time their expedition encountered a new colony of penguins. I can understand why this is possible as during my three short weeks in the Antarctic region—I managed a ridiculous 1500 pictures of penguins. Somehow, they were so enthralling as they waddled about on the ice and snow in their natural habitat and I pitifully tried to capture those moments on film. It seemed that every new penguin met was immensely cuter than the last and click went the shutter again. But the truth is that these seemingly innocent penguins have a dark side.
Contrary to the representations of media and the film industry, penguins are not adorable bundles of black and white. Penguins are pink. Making their nests in a fester of fetid pinkish-red guano-- excrement benefiting from the richness of a seafood diet and the scourge of the penguin colonies. Guano, or saltpetre, used widely in food preservation, is a resource over which a number of wars have been fought. You read it right—penguin poop is a valuable economic resource as it is teeming with fertilizing nutrients. And there is a chance that you have eaten it. Many people worry about the nations of the world wanting to drill for oil or mine for other resources in the Antarctic—and the continent is probably brimming with economic opportunities buried underneath all that ice. However, when the Madrid Protocol came into force, prohibiting activity on mineral resources, the most accessible resource given up in the Antarctic was penguin excrement. It is difficult to imagine headlines announcing the ruin of the Antarctic for the pursuit of guano harvesting, so hopefully the pink stained icy penguin habitat is safe from economic exploitation for just a while longer.
Yet despite wearing these noxious pink stained suits, penguins are still interesting creatures and it sometimes easy to forget that they are really birds rather than some other flippered aquatic species. Possibly the only time that penguins are truly black and white is when they are in the water, hunting and playing. The next biggest surprise of meeting real penguins and discovering that they are pink--is the first encounter with the synchronised swimming of a muster of penguins in their natural habitat something that is never observed in their cramped conditions in zoos. I have watched endless video hours of penguins sliding on snow, swimming near shore and stealing rocks from other penguins—but I had never seen them swim in unison like a pod of porpoises until I visited the Antarctic. Evolution hasn’t permitted for penguins to fly, but they sure can swim—which is a handy talent for (hopefully) escaping from predatory leopard seals. Unfortunately, while on land, their usual pink masquerade doesn’t assist in defending the colony from the predatory activities of the menacing skuas lurking overhead, stealthily looking for opportunities to steal a tasty egg or a fluffy penguin baby.
In addition to being dirty pink birdies, although living in the purest and most untouched landscape on the planet—penguins are exceedingly filthy. In my short encounter with the Antarctic, I observed more incidents of penguin sex than I can count, and therefore also have a substantial quantity of penguin porn in my hundreds of penguin photos. It is almost impossible to distinguish the male from female penguins and so the joke circulates that you can identify females by the presence of pink muddy footprints on their backs as doggy-style is the preferred penguin position. However, even this identification system comes with a caveat. Penguins love their sexual activities so much—they’ll basically do it with anything, dead or alive. In fact, penguin sexual behaviour is so depraved that the Victorian polar explorers themselves turned various shades of pink and red when watching penguin sex and thus published their findings on penguin reproduction in Greek so that only learned gentleman would be able to read the reports. These reports weren’t published for the public until 2012, when of course no one but the Greeks can read Greek, but fortunately, penguin encounters are now accessible more than just the exceedingly privileged.
The truth about penguins might indeed be that they are pink, valuable and filthy. But a second truth is that I love them even more for having experienced their reality and hope someday for another face-to-face encounter with these adorable avian peculiarities.
Corine loves a good adventure. She's partial to wilderness, UNESCO World Heritage sites and wine. Based in the United Kingdom, she has roamed the trails and streets of six continents. This is a chronicle of her experiences, seasoned liberally with philosophical musings.