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Communing with Penguins by Pam Mandel

Posted April 4, 2011 @ 6:36pm | by TravelWild

Penguins are, no doubt, one of the biggest attractions for the south-bound. They’re cute, funny, noisy, and the chicks are heart-breakingly adorable. And if they smell a bit ripe and you happen to see one projectile pooping in your direction, that makes them no less diverting when they porpoise through the icy Antarctic waters. Or chase down a parent in hopes of being fed. Or plop down on their bellies right in front of where you’re walking as if to say, “What? I have the right of way here, I’m taking it.”

The IAATO rules are quite clear—in short, you are meant to keep your distance from the wildlife and not mess with them in ANY way. This is easily forgotten by first time viewers, who, in the presence of those first unfenced birds, get right on top of them with the telephoto lens. Early in the trip, I overheard the words “YOU ARE TOO CLOSE!” many times—I’d turn to see an annoyed looking penguin, glaring into the camera of a ship mate. An expedition guide in a red coat would be approaching—”Back up, remember, 15 feet. 5 meters!” I did not envy them their jobs. The penguins, on the other hand seemed… unflappable. Sorry about the pun.

It became progressively more difficult to keep a proper distance from the penguins, the more stops we made. It wasn’t because the penguins had increased in their magnetic appeal, it was that each place we went was smaller and more densely populated. But we became, as a group, increasingly more mellow at the sight of our tuxedo wearing friends. It’s not that they’d lost their luster, it was just that, well, you never forget your first penguin. After those first viewing, it became much easier to stand back, watch, and let the birds decide how each visit was going to go.

One of my favorite things—well, everything was my favorite thing—was to walk away from the crowds. I’d find a place to sit, not too close to the penguins, and I’d just hang out. The penguins, after assessing me—”Food source? No. Predator? No. Okay then, back to your regularly schedule penguin activities!”—would mostly ignore me. Sometimes, they’d shout out, and a penguin over there, up the hill would answer. Maybe I’d get to watch a feeding. Maybe I’d just be in the middle of some noise. I never approached the birds too close, I always moved slowly, I never got in their way or tried to make them pay attention to me. (Okay, once I might have sung a little song to a penguin who was just there, relaxing, in a lounge chair kind of way.)

I loved just sitting there, quietly, watching. Of course I took pictures, of COURSE I did. But mostly, I was just a guest in the penguin colony, trying to be polite (and trying to avoid sitting in penguin guano). It’s great fun to learn about the birds from the experts on the ship, and to share your enthusiasm for their inherently comic behavior with fellow travelers. But it’s the time I took to sit quietly and just watch that sticks with me most, now, after I’m home. I try not to project too much human “stuff” on to the animals I saw, but when you sit with a penguin—not too close, mind you!—and she turns, and looks you in the eye, and then, goes back to doing whatever it was she was doing before… well, for me, there was a moment of recognition, of realization. “Yes, you’re here with me,” the penguin seems to say.

And that’s an amazing feeling.

Photo: Blogger Pam Mandel with a Gentoo chick.

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