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There’s Something About Penguins – Life and Love amongst Antarctica’s Adelies.

A Gentoo Penguin scurries past a sweetly sleeping seal. Photo: Liz Alvey for Travel Boldly
A Gentoo Penguin scurries past a sweetly sleeping seal. One of Liz Alvey's photos from her days of observing penguins and their rituals during her time in Antartica.
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There’s Something About Penguins – Life and Love amongst Antarctica’s Adelies.

by Liz Alvey

Now I’m an urban type, living by choice in cities since the age of 19. I went to Antarctica for the spectacle, the dramatic landscapes and the adventure (and to get as far away as possible from anyone I knew for my 50th birthday!).

But I came back with an abiding affection and admiration for penguins.  Blessed with the specialist knowledge of an eccentric Uruguayan professor, I acquired just enough insight to interpret some of their behaviour.

Penguin watch a cruise ship in Antarctica.  Photo: Liz Alvey for Travel Boldly
Penguin watch a cruise ship pass in Antarctica.
Photo: Liz Alvey for Travel Boldly
Of course it’s not all good. I have to tell you, penguins stink.  A lot. Especially when you find yourself amongst 100,000 Adelies. Not to put too fine a point on it, they live on their own shit. Which, on the plus side is pink. This is due to their consumption of krill, a small prawn-like sea creature that also provides sustenance for other Antarctica natives like whales and seals.

Our expedition guides properly impressed upon us the importance of not interfering with penguin lifestyle and routines. This included stepping off the penguin highways (tamped down pathway in the deep snow) if in use and not approaching closer than a couple of metres. However, no one told the penguins.  The Adelies in particular appeared to have a bemused curiosity about their temporary visitors, seeming to regard us as larger and more colourful versions of themselves.

My favorite episode (helpfully interpreted by our onboard expert) was observing a group of juvenile Adelies. Without wanting to be too anthropomorphic, it was like watching a gaggle of teenagers on a suburban street corner.

Penguin observe their observers. Antarctica  Photo: Liz Alvey for Travel Boldly
Penguin gather to observe their observers. Antarctica
Photo: Liz Alvey for Travel Boldly
Girl penguins huddled together. Boy penguins clustered separately, keeping a covert eye on them. And showing off, trying to attract female attention. Finally one bold character made his move. He approached the object of his affection, who deigned to allow herself to be separated from her cohort. He began to pay court; she responded coyly but with increasing interest until both became fully engaged in the head-bobbing courtship behavior our expert described.

Thus emboldened, he began to try and move things to the next level. Withdrawing slightly he searched and found a suitable love token for his amour – a pebble, the currency of love amongst penguins. Pebble in beak, he offered it to his lady love. She paused, considered.....took her time then turned her back and returned to her mates. Hopes dashed and feathers ruffled, her rejected suitor was left high and dry, before he too, scuttled back to the safety of his gang. Who probably took the mickey out of him or whatever the penguin equivalent is.

And there’s a life lesson to be learned by us all – women like stones but they have to be rare and valuable or it’s not going to pique our interest! Even amongst penguins.



Other articles by Liz Alvey


Greece: A Kefalonia Love Affair
Greece: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

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