January 5, 2009
As penguin babies grow and become more self-sufficient, their parents spend less time with them, until the adults only come to land for brief periods to feed their chicks before heading to sea again. Meanwhile, we’ve still got satellite tags on some adult penguins that need to be recovered. Since there is such a short window to catch the penguins when they come back to shore, we’re now on 24-hour alert, ready to run down to the colony if a penguin should return.
I’ve got the “night” shift tonight. From dinner to 5:30am, I am on duty in the hut, listening to our telemetry equipment every half hour to see if our birds are getting close (Kirsten will get up at 5:30 to continue the watch). If I put on the headphones and hear beeps, it’s time to dash a mile down the hill to try to catch a penguin. As I write this, it’s 4:45 in the morning, and still as bright and sunny as ever outside, though the sun is low enough in the sky that it has dipped behind Mount Terror, casting a shadow over Cape Crozier during the early hours. None of our penguins have returned, so I’m watching movies on my laptop to pass the time.
Needless to say, I’m planning on sleeping in tomorrow. I hope I awake a bit more peacefully than I did this morning. At 11am, I started dreaming about helicopters, then woke in a sudden panic: the dream was real, and a helicopter was hovering over my tent, vibrating me in my sleeping bag! But our resupply flight wasn’t supposed to arrive until 1pm! I’m sure the pilots were amused by the bleary-eyed, confused figure scurrying from the tent below, though they were more preoccupied with a pair of skuas nesting next to the helo pad which divebombed the helicopter as it descended (a skua sucked into the right spot around the rotor blades could crash the aircraft, and they almost aborted landing because the birds were getting too close). In the end, we were glad the flight came, early or not, since they brought us more frozen breakfast sausage and took away our graywater tank and two empty propane tanks.
Surprise! As I was writing this, getting ready for bed, a penguin returned with one of our satellite tags. So, just since the last paragraph, I’ve layered up, run a mile down the hill, caught the penguin, removed its tag, and hiked back, getting back in just after six. Until you’ve sprinted all-out down an Antarctic snowfield at 5am, having stayed up all night, hurdling wind ridges and patches of blue ice, knowing that a wily penguin was waiting for you to chase it, you haven’t lived. You really should try it sometime. Me, I’m off to pass out in my sleeping bag.