A Penguin Christmas Story

Cool Antarctica is fortunate to have been able to secure an exclusive interview this Christmas with Pete and Dolores Adelie in West Antarctica. A realistic tale of what penguins are doing around Christmas time for ages 11 and up.

  What is life like for a couple of young penguins like yourselves in Antarctica?

Pete - Well we're only here for about half of the year, we turn up in the spring when the ice has gone from the edge of the continent to, err... you know - well to make this years eggs.

Dolores - Yes Pete and I have been together for a couple of years now, we meet up in the spring, for the... for the eggs (blushes). We're quite lucky in that we've had a good spot on the colony near to the top of the hill, but not too near the middle. It's thanks to Pete that we've got that place.

  How did you meet?

Pete - I remember my old Dad telling me - "get there early son and go for the highest spot". He meant on the colony grounds, I was born here myself so I know the place. The first year that I was big enough and old enough to make an egg of my own I made sure I was one of the first here.

I followed the older penguins through the winter and then back to the colony at the start of spring. That was hard work I'll tell you. The ice was bad that year and we had a 40km walk across the ice to get to where the colony was. I almost gave up a few times, thought we were lost, but the older penguins knew the way and showed me how to toboggan on the flat areas so saving my strength and cover the ground quicker. We move when the sun is shining as that's how we navigate, when it's cloudy, we just have to hang about and wait for the weather to improve.

I didn't recognise the place when we arrived, it was almost deserted, last I remember of it was when I was a newly fledged chick and there were penguins as far as the eye could see.

The good thing was there were plenty of stones around to make a nest. I thought you just helped yourself - well you do sort of. Some of the older birds who had been my friends in the winter and on the ice started pinching my stones and battered me with their flippers if they caught me taking theirs - pecking too - that hurt!

I got a good spot and defended it well. You need to be near the top of the hill see, in case it gets warm and the snow melts, that way it doesn't flood your nest and chill your eggs.

If you're in the middle of the colony it's safer against death-from-the-sky - the skuas, (a shudder ran through Pete's body when he said this).

Dolores - "You still haven't answered the question, I knew you could talk, but for the love-of-krill!" I arrived here about October when most of the guys were already here. We girls hung around by the sea to start with, it was my first season too you see. Some of the older girls were walking around eyeing the guys up straight away, but I was shy then.

Crabeater seals

I slowly went up the hill when just in front of me a little way off I saw Pete for the first time. Well he just looked so fine! (giggle) with his chest out, flippers back and that strong "Awk awk awk" of his. I played hard to get for a while, but I knew he'd seen me, whenever he saw me sneaking a glance off he'd go again, he had a great place to stand, nearly the whole colony could see him on that great nest of stones he'd got, and he was so loud! Made my flippers tremble he did.

Well the season is short and I knew he was the penguin for me so I approached him with my beak down like my mother said. This was the scary part as he might not have wanted me at all and I could have been chased away. I was so thrilled when he put his beak down too! "You tell it now Pete"

Pete - (Pete had been standing noticeably more upright and proud-looking when Dolores was talking). Well like the other guys, I'd been doing this display thing for ages and most of the girls had looked, but none had come near. Suddenly I saw this real stunning young penguin coming up looking at me and with her beak down. "Wow!" I thought, "Stay calm Pete don't blow it!" So I put my beak down too and she kept coming towards me, even stood at the side of my nest!

I was a bit concerned about that nest, were there enough stones? was it large enough? were the stones the right colour and arranged in the right way? Anyhow Dolores seemed to think it was ok. I slowly and carefully started to beak-weave with her, couldn't believe I dared to try!

  Beak weave?

Dolores - That's what we call it, it's our way of getting to know each other and seeing we've got the right partner for us. We stand opposite each other facing, then bend over with our beaks almost touching the ground, you then weave your beak slowly back and forwards moving up all the time keeping in time with each other, making a lovely soft Awwwww sound. Then the best bit, when you get where you're standing fully upright, you throw your flippers and head back and both "Awk Awk Awk" at each other as loud as you can.

Then you go back down to ground level for another go. I love beak weaving with Pete, makes a girl feel so special.

  So you were a couple?

Crabeater seals Pete - sure were, I felt so good when I went off to fish with the other guys leaving Dolores to look after the nest. They all said she was a real catch and we looked good together.

We all had a great feed the way you can when the krill are swarming well and headed "home" for the first time.

Well what happened next was what all penguins do and I was so pleased when Dolores told me she thought she was expecting an egg!

Dolores - I'd suspected for some time before I told Pete. We get to a lot of talking on the nests with the other penguins and nearly all of the girls were in the same situation. "Hey Pete remember the ice that year?"

Pete - Do I ever! It wasn't as bad as it was when I'd arrived. - (Dolores eyes rolled upwards "He always says that, it's never as bad as it was before I got to the nest site") - There was still a 10km walk to the sea when we had an egg, a big iceberg was stopping the sea-ice from breaking out properly. Felt like I used up half of the energy I got from feeding just walking to the sea and back again.

  And you were soon parents?

Dolores - I was surprised how soon the egg was big enough to lay, but I was glad not to have to carry it back and forwards to the sea to go feeding. It meant that we now had to look after it and keep it warm on the nest. It wasn't as big as I thought it would be (felt like a monster when I was laying it though!), the older girls said we'd used energy up walking to the sea and back that should have gone into the egg.

Life was a bit boring then, just keeping the egg warm, watching out for sneaky penguins trying to steal nest stones - the only good bit was trying to get other stones from around to build our nest up. Pete was particularly good at this, but our nest never seemed to get any bigger, I always wondered why that was?

Pete - The other guys kept saying "make the most of it Pete, it'll be different when the chick's here". I remember one day I'd been out fishing, had to go much further than normal as the krill weren't close to shore, maybe they knew something?

One of the older guys with us looked real sad, I tried to talk to him, he thought his mate wasn't coming this year, they'd been together for some years and he'd got the old nest site better than ever. Said he'd seen penguins come and go, thought he'd heard her a few times, even turned a couple of young ones away who'd come to the nest with beaks down. He said something about a seal having her. I saw a good clump of krill and so called him over and we darted through it feeding together. Whatever happens, a full belly always helps when it's cold.

Crabeater seals We were porpoising back and it started to get difficult, big waves and spray, we were being bounced all over the place. Difficult to breathe sometimes at the surface with the water blowing in the air and breaking over us. Ice seemed to be everywhere! Small bits covering the sea, no chance of porpoising, you couldn't take off and couldn't land either. I wanted to get back to Dolores as it seemed there was a right old storm brewing. The older penguins started swimming back out to sea! Said we should get away from the loose ice and wait until we could swim back more easily. It didn't look like we could swim back at all in fact as all this ice had come from nowhere and looked like it covered the world.

Well it was a monster of a storm, we tried getting onto an ice floe, but it was too small really and we started to feel sea-sick with all the movement. There were bigger pieces of ice, but they were all surrounded with this small stuff that we just couldn't swim through. We spent hours and hours at sea, it was pretty awful, just grateful that it was summer time and didn't get dark so we could see what we were doing.

Sometime, much later the storm blew itself out and sea calmed down. All that small ice was blown out too so we started heading back home.

We started getting closer, but I thought we'd gone wrong as we couldn't find the ice edge. I was getting a bit panicky about this in case the storm had blown us somewhere and we were lost. The older penguins just laughed at this and porpoised forwards faster than ever before.

I soon realised what had happened and felt such a fool! The storm had broken that berg that was stopping the sea-ice breaking out. It had split in two and part of it had tipped up. When it broke it made loads of small pieces of "brash ice" (this was a new word on me)  which was the small stuff we couldn't swim through. Because it was now broken it wasn't wedged in any more. The storm had blown it out to sea, broken up all the sea ice and blown that out to sea too.

All this had happened while we were further out waiting for the storm to end! The best part was that the ice had now broken right back to the rocky shore. The bad bit (for now) was that there was an "ice foot" and so even though I thought I could see Dolores on the nest I couldn't get out of the sea! More waiting about until the tide came back in.

I couldn't even call out to her, there were thousands of penguins everywhere on shore and at sea. Some trying to get out and others trying to get in. I walked and swam up and down the shore, but this great "step" of the ice foot was way above a penguins head in all places.

  What were you doing at this time Dolores?

Adelie penguin

Dolores - It had been windy when I took over from Pete on egg duty - well (laughs) ok it's always windy here, but it was getting windier by the minute. I wasn't properly worried as Pete is such a strong young penguin, but you never know here do you?

About the time when Pete would normally be back I felt a little movement under me. I was lying down on the egg and to be honest getting a bit fed up with it sticking in me. Esmeralda on the next nest must have seen me twitch and said "stand up dear, look at your egg". So I did, and there was a tiny little hole in it! "It's hatching! My egg is hatching!" I shouted.

I was going to help peck at it with my beak when Esmeralda said "No don't do that, you must let the chick break it's own way out" So I stood and watched it. What a time to choose! The wind was getting stronger and snow was starting to blow, all the other birds were laying down facing the wind so it didn't ruffle their feathers. I had to stand with my back to the wind and cover the egg with by brood flap. It wouldn't have been so bad, but the gusting wind kept blowing my feathers around and making me cold - at least it was summer.

The blowing snow was getting so bad I couldn't see the other birds some of the time now. The chick was making progress, but so slowly. I thought the egg would hatch in a few minutes, it was already an hour and the hole was no bigger than when it started. I was also getting worried about Pete, there had been some big noises, bangs and crashes from the distance earlier today. Don't know what it was, but when you're already worried, almost everything seems scary.

For about the first time I could remember the colony was making hardly a sound. There was the occasional penguin sound, but the main noise was the roar of the wind. I was a bit upset that Pete wasn't here to see the egg hatching, but as it was happening so slowly I thought he might anyway. I didn't expect him to be back until the storm ended now. Esmeralda said the older penguins would know what to do at sea and would tell him. I just worried that he might have managed to feed really quickly (Pete is a great fisher-penguin) and then head back on his own.

  Did Pete see the egg hatch?

Adelie penguin

Dolores - Well it took so long, I thought there'd be time for the whole colony to drop by and watch the egg hatch! In the end he didn't unfortunately. The storm calmed and snow stopped blowing and then the sun did that thing it only seems to know how to do in Antarctica, coming out from an almost black sky to dazzling brilliance in a few minutes.

What a difference I saw too! The sea-ice was gone! The 10km walk back and forth to the sea was no more! It was now about a quarter of a km from nest to sea, this meant that raising junior was going to be much easier than I'd thought. There was a lot of activity around the colony. I had to laugh at all the penguins who had been nearly buried in the snow, watching them stand up and shake the snow off. That was the one advantage of my having to stand up while junior hatched.

There seemed to be a commotion at the water's edge, Esmeralda said it was the "ice foot" left behind by the sea-ice, there were hundreds, thousands of penguins coming to the shore, but staying in the sea. She said they would have to wait for the tide to come in before they could get ashore.

I was getting pretty impatient now, standing through a storm for hours, getting hungrier while Pete had a full belly, and now more waiting. I was also worried that Pete may have been taken by death-from-the-sea (leopard seals).

Pete - I was getting fed up now. I'd been gone more than a day longer than normal and I know it sounds strange, but I wanted to get back to the egg. I was also a little nervous of how Dolores was going to be, I knew she'd be hungry and itching to get off the nest - you can't go anywhere with an egg to look after.

I finally got up the ice foot - hope that's not going to be there for long - and went over to the nest. Dolores had that "I bet you've been having a great time jumping on and off icebergs and formation fishing for kill, while I've been stuck here" look about her. I tried an "Awk" but got a stare in response "How's the egg?" I asked.

She moved her feet and lifted her brood patch and there it was! Our very own chick! I went to beak weave, but she said "I've no time for that I need a feed, there's another mouth wanting food now and another egg to look after still", and off she went.

I was so happy standing there on the nest with junior greedily eating the krill I was happy to sick up straight down his little gullet. He soon looked like a proper penguin chick with a huge plump belly under his cute little head. I couldn't wait for the next egg to hatch too.

  What did you call junior?

Dolores - Well Pete wanted to call him (it was a boy) "Pencil" (Pete looks uncomfortably at his feet). He said it was a modern take on the penguin tradition - traditionally all male penguins have names beginning with "P". I said he was daft-as-a-chinstrap (penguin), and it was to be Percy after his granddad or Percival after my great uncle, I'd rather he was called potato than pencil. So yes, we called him Percival and a fine figure of a lad he was, even if he did have a tendency for getting a bit messy later on when we were both out fishing.

  Did he grow quickly?

Pete - Cor, not half! The summer season is only short and so penguin chicks have to be big enough come the winter (fall really, but there are no trees for anything to fall from) to survive and look after themselves.

There was no respite either. When Percival was little one of us had to stay with him while the other went fishing. He certainly liked his krill did that one and especially the little fish we caught too as treats. Little penguin chicks have to have a parent with them you see because they're liable to get cold very easily and they might be taken and killed by death-from-the-sky (I think you call them skuas). Pretty soon Percival was joined by the second chick that we called Pocahontas.

Once they got bigger and could be left on their own we thought we'd have it easier with two of us fishing, but not a bit of it. As they were bigger, they ate more didn't they? I reckon they thought they were emperor penguins those two the way they wanted to grow.

  Were they safe when left on their own?

Crabeater seals Dolores - Well when we say on their own we mean without us there. All the penguin chicks hang around in a large group called a "creche", any adult penguins that are around help to protect them all too. Makes it easier for the adults to go fishing and provide enough food for all the chicks.

Some of the chicks don't make it however, they are taken by death-from-the-sky (both Dolores and Pete looked sadly at the ground) despite being in a large group.

Percival was a mucky little so and so, always running about, falling over and getting dirty - and you can guess what it is that makes a penguin colony dirty I bet. Penguin chicks don't look like the adults for a while as they have soft brown down rather than feathers. Down is better at keeping them warm, it's useless in the sea, but they don't go into the water until they've moulted and grown some adult feathers. Pocahontas was a bit tidier - takes after her Mom.

Down also makes the chicks look massive compared to their mum and dad and our Percival in particular being the first born and a big lad anyway looked even more huge!

Pete - made it easier when you came back home from the sea though. When you get back from fishing, all the chicks start to squawk at you for food and start following you, they quickly fall off though until there's a few. Eventually it's only your own chicks that's left and will follow you as far as they need to, Percival was easier to spot as he was so big.

  So Percival was your first chick?

Pete - He was, in fact he's just over that little hill there raising his own chick now, give him a wave. Pocahontas didn't return after the winter so we had a little ceremony at the place in the sea where we last saw her before she swam off to the winter pack - it happens, all the penguins here know someone who they saw one day and then that was it - no more. The second egg and second chick are usually smaller than the first and it needs to be a good season to get two big strong fledged chicks who can look after themselves.

Dolores - Then last year, we did well, we had two eggs and out came Peregrine and Myfanwy (a girl), and of course this year we've got our latest, little Potato. (Looks towards Pete) "Well the name grew on me after you came up with that silly "Pencil".

  Sounds like your summers are more than busy, do you have time to do anything else?

Pete - Not really, relaxation waits to the winter. After that year's chick/s have been fledged, learned to swim and started to fend for themselves, we have a good feed and then find somewhere nice and quiet for a few weeks while we moult our old feathers and grow a new set for the winter. That tends to be a relaxing time after the excitement, can be a bit boring actually - and you do get hungry as you can't go fishing again until the new feathers are ready.

  Do you have any plans for Christmas? Right in the middle of chick rearing?

Dolores - We don't have time for much else in the summer really you know.

Cool Antarctica - Thank you very much both of you for you time and good luck with little Potato here (tickles him under the chin - then wipes hand on sleeve).

Pete - Oh never mind that it's just a bit of krill Dolores sicked up a while ago, Potato loves it you know.

Dolores - Pete, Pete - has he gone now? - Pete, what's Christmas?

Pete - How do I know? - I'm a penguin.

Adelie penguin facts