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Antarctic Journal

January 22, 2003

I Visit a Special Place to Learn About Penguins.

Giant petrel
Bill Fraser and Donna Patterson leading the Schnappers.
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Most research at Palmer Station takes place within about two miles of base. Zodiac boats are generally prohibited from going any further for fear that bad weather or something else unexpected might cause a mishap far from help. However, today I am cruising across 13 miles of open water to the Joubins, an archipelago of islands that has an almost mythic stature at Palmer Station. Few people ever get to visit them, though many would like to see their rugged beauty. Bill Fraser, Donna Patterson, and their birder team, nicknamed the "Schnappers" needed special permission to go today. They picked a cloudless, still day, the first in two weeks. I was invited because there's an important story to tell here about penguins.

As Palmer Station recedes toward the horizon, the rocky slopes of Mount William appear right behind it. Farther back, completely covered in blinding-white snow, rises the 9,300-foot summit of Mount Fran´┐Żais. We speed through a narrow passage between Island Eight and a skyscraper-size iceberg (the 126 islands in the Joubins have no names, so the birders number them for their records) . Seconds later, a truck-size hunk of ice slips off the berg making a thunderous crash and shattering into hundreds of chunks. As we land on the shore we watch the iceberg in amazement and relief; it totters and sheds more huge ice slabs right where our boat just passed.
Daniel Grossman
A Gentoo Colony
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The birders have come here to do a census of the penguins and petrels on these boulder-strewn isles. Fraser has been coming here to survey penguins for almost 30 years. He's discovered a pattern that concerns him. When he first visited here in 1975, this island had about 300 breeding pairs of Adelies and a handful of chinstrap and gentoo penguins. Adelies here, as everywhere else near Palmer Station, have been in a slow decline ever since. Today, there are about 150 pairs of gentoos on Island Eight making them the most common penguin. Chinstraps are second with about 30 pairs. Fraser says now there are just 15 Adelies.

Adelies have the classic bird-in-tuxedo look. They are the size of a toy poodle standing on its hind legs. Chinstraps look similar and are about the same size, but they have a thin black line in their feathers (it looks like the strap of a hat) under their chin. Gentoos have an orange bill and white eye patches that make them look like they are wearing glasses when they bend over. Fraser doesn't know for sure where the Adelies went or where the gentoos and chinstraps came from. He has some evidence that the Adelies are simply not producing enough chicks to replace the adults that die of old age. He says it is unlikely that the Adelies have moved somewhere else, as he has banded nearly 20,000 Adelies in 30 years and has yet to find one that has moved away from the immediate Palmer area. They are extraordinarily attached to the colonies where they are born. However, the gentoos may be coming from somewhere else north of Palmer, where they have traditionally nested.

Daniel Grossman
Bizarre-shaped ice floes
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Over the course of a nearly 12-hour day we weave among the Joubins, some no bigger than a football field. Some have sheer spines of granite, whereas others are flat and boulder-strewn. The many narrow channels among the cluster of isles are choked with icebergs large and small. Today the seas are calm and the water is crystal clear. We visit one island where there are the bones of a beached humpback whale. Elsewhere, we discover some strange and unusual fossils. I make audio recordings of the gentoos, which I have not seen before, and a trio of napping leopard seals snoring. After visiting every Joubin with penguins or petrels, it's time to boat home. The sun is on the wane. Our return trip is slowed by a thick band of brash ice coming from an iceberg that must have split in two. Finally we arrive at base. The cook has saved us a Louisiana dinner of Jambalaya, cat fish, red beans and rice, and pecan pie.

I'll be writing more about Bill Fraser's research in future journals. The researcher believes that the changes in the penguin population are due in large part to climate change. The Antarctic Peninsula has warmed as much as anywhere else in the world (on average winter temperatures here are nine degrees Fahrenheit warmer today than they were 50 years ago). I'll explain later why he thinks change is bad news for Adelies, but good for chinstraps and gentoos. If Fraser is right, the Antarctic could be an early indication of what might occur in other parts of the world as Earth's temperature continues to climb. "We're seeing a system changing before our eyes in ways that ecologist speculated 30 years ago things might change in response to climate warming," says the scientist.

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