Log of the RV IB Nathaniel B. Palmer, 2300 hours, 31 Oct 04, 65 deg 30 min S lat; 142 deg 52 min E lon.
When I asked the other day, no one was able to tell me how long penguins live. I suppose we may be able to find it in one of the bird references on the bridge, but the exact length of time doesn't matter.
What I was wondering, as we crunched by a couple of Emperors standing watching us, was how likely it was that they might NEVER have seen another ship, nor any other sign of man here in the middle of thousands of square miles of sea ice at the bottom of the world.
I mean it's not like these guys are standing on a corner in Boston or something. You can go along for hours looking with binoculars and never see anything other than ice. These are not the penguin rookeries where tourist ships come along and take pictures. We're on an icebreaker. It goes where other vessels simply cannot.
Amy, the Marine Technician and a born skeptic, still doesn't believe that I carried on a conversation with a penguin and that we squawked back and forth a few times, and that he would squawk and start to move away and that I'd squawk at him and he'd toddle a little u-turn and come back and strike a pose and stare at me and squawk. I think he may have done that because he has simply never had anybody talk to him except another penguin and what I was doing was close enough to penguin noise that he just had to believe I must be a penguin too, although possibly a demented one.
Anyhow, last night was clear and quiet and we were slicing through fifteen centimeters of new ice at three or four in the morning and there was a single penguin pretty much right in our path: just a few feet to the left of the center line of the ship. I think he must have been sleeping standing up, or else penguins spend half their time in some sort of trance just standing and staring. I mean what else is there to do for God's sake, especially in winter but even now on warm spring nights of about twenty-five below.
So the mate swung one of the five searchlight beams down onto the penguin, and there he stood, pretty much like a cartoon character as the ship's prow bore down on him, until suddenly he does a double take and sees the ship. Pirouetting he does a classic penguin belly-flop and scoots off like a little penguinny snow torpedo while the ship slides by. As the ship draws past he stands back up and stands there, a bit wobbly, staring at this monster orange apparition that nearly ran him over.
There were just a couple of us on the bridge, standing in the dark, and no one had said anything. What's to say. We had just broken the Antarctic Treaty by "disturbing the wildlife" big time but it wasn't intentional, nor was there a way it could have been avoided.
I strode to the port bridge wing to see if he got clear and as he stood back up and stared after us with shock and indignation, the victim of a near miss, I realized something. "You know", I mused to no one in particular, "that penguin has just had a profound religious experience."
"How in the heck", I pondered, "is he ever going to get any of his friends to believe what just happened to him, waking up out of a sound sleep, light in the sky brighter than the sun, an orange thing as big as an iceberg but moving at a speed never before seen by penguin or beast." Poor fellow will spend the rest of his life saying, "but I swear, I wasn't dreaming ..." His friends will turn away and ignore him (well, they do that already). They'll think he's crazy. HE'LL think he's crazy.
Perhaps all of the penguins who happen to have seen us during this cruise will become the UFO (Unidentified Floating Object) nuts of the Antarctic, for in this world we are surely the Aliens.