Blog Post

Penguins Wanted

This is Part Two of "Voyage of the Yellow-eyed Penguin" (See Part OnePart ThreePart Four)

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The Search 8 November 2017 Port Ross and Enderby Island

It was cold and clear and very dark when six hardy souls climbed over the ship's rail and down into the little dinghy, surging up and down against Evohe’s hull. Hamish the helmsman yanked the engine into gear and they all sped way into the blackness. He would be dropping them off at intervals along the coast of the nearest island.

To monitor yellow-eyed penguins on a subantarctic island, 300 miles south of New Zealand, you get up at three-something in the morning. You get into position before first light, when the reclusive penguins are already emerging from their nests and skulking toward the ocean. You stay in one spot without moving for four and a half hours, or risk scaring the penguins back into hiding. You wear layers and layers and layers of clothing, because there's no telling what the weather will do.

Those of us stationed on the ship had more leeway where the weather was concerned. After seeing the shore crew off, we waited on the sheltered side of the boat until we agreed that it was almost light enough to see. Then we went over to our posts around the deck, at which precise moment it started hailing. The sky cleared; the sun came up. The light began to take on a strange and unsettling hue, and we were engulfed in hail again.

”Reckon we go in, because we can't see.”

When the second hailstorm passed, the nearby mountaintops were coated with a layer of white that slowly melted away. Meanwhile there we were, back at our posts and doing our best to look for penguins. Squinting at a too-distant shore through binoculars, I scanned the dark line of rocks for any and all white blobs that might possibly be pale penguin bellies.

Finally I saw some: a clump of three faraway white blobs. I waited at least ten minutes for them to jump into the sea. Instead they all flew away. I concluded that they were, in fact, gulls.

Zero penguins for me today, but what a day. After that last storm, the sun steadily gained conviction and transformed the moody morning landscape back into the chilly paradise we had discovered yesterday, with not only whales but breaching whales to punctuate the scene. How they could get up speed in that shallow cove was beyond me.

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And that concluded our first penguin count. Everyone had survived, and we took a prolonged break to get warm, eat snacks, take naps, and have lunch. My baking contribution for the day was brownies. Then the afternoon's task: moving the two grad students and all their stuff onto nearby Enderby Island.

Chris and Rebecca will live there, on their own, all summer.

Getting 15 people and a dozen dinghyfuls of stuff onto a ledge of slippery, kelp-covered rocks was no small challenge, even with the calm seas we had this afternoon. Nor was carrying stacks of fish bins and 40-pound batteries all the way down the beach and up the hill to the huts.

But that didn't matter, because we'd landed in wonderland. I was enthralled to see real live brown skuas sauntering around and poking through our piles of supplies. Not only were there endangered New Zealand sea lions all over the place, but they were dwarfed by the massive bulk of a male elephant seal lying among them. He occasionally whiffled through his large proboscis as we walked by with load after load of stuff.

The sea lions seemed a lot more interested in messing with the humans. Every so often one would galumph over to one of us with a menacing growl, and stop short just a few feet away. Chris assured us that they're all show and no bite. He then showed us a wavy scar on his arm from being bitten.

That had been an extreme situation, he said.

" Not sure why, but I really like skuas (sketched in subantarctic New Zealand) A post shared by Abby McBride (@sketchbiologist) on Dec 3, 2017 at 2:45pm PST   "

It's the eighth summer out here for Chris, whose Ph.D. work is closely tied to this annual penguin-counting expedition. Among many other things, he's been figuring out if and how the snapshot morning counts can be used to accurately assess the penguin population. Enderby is the most penguin-populated island in the archipelago, so this is where he and Rebecca are intensively studying the birds at their nests.

After a few days on a cramped ship, I was practically running back and forth in my enthusiasm to carry heavy objects across the island. I'd peeled off about a dozen articles of clothing and was down to single layers (plus gumboots). It took many loads and a couple of hours to get everything up to the huts, where it all underwent another quarantine check. The island has been cleared of all invasive mammals, so we had to make sure there were no rodents hiding in any boxes or bags. Then we bade Chris and Rebecca farewell—but just until next week, when we'll make one more trip to Enderby for a morning penguin count.

Upon returning to Evohe we performed the all-important boot-scrubbing ritual in a bucket of sterilizing liquid. We can't risk bringing any species from Enderby to our next stop: Rose Island.

The Payoff 9 November 2017 Rose Island and Port Ross

At some point in the very early morning I heard the anchor coming up: we were leaving our sheltered anchorage spot and heading toward Rose. I was about to perform my first penguin-monitoring duties on land.

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I hadn't slept much, thanks to a loud banging noise from the wind generator (which was "munted," a word I had been pleased to learn earlier on this trip). So I was still dazed with sleepiness as I climbed over the side of the ship to set off for the island. The dinghy was heaving wildly this morning and I suddenly wondered how accessible the inflation tab of my lifejacket was. After a bit of fumbling I located it with my fingers. Meanwhile we were all doused repeatedly with sprays of salt water.

The waves calmed as we approached the island. Once I got ashore onto the slippery rocks, the ground seemed to sway with the sudden absence of boat motion. We all made our way down the beach to our respective posts, marked the previous afternoon by the DoC rangers with bits of reflective tape. Soon I was happily seated in a tussock.

I sat in darkness for a while, until almost imperceptibly the sky began to lighten.

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At 5:32 two penguins appeared in front of me, as if by magic. Their white fronts and yellow-striped heads glowed dimly, while their dark gray backs faded into the shadowy rocks.

They must not have seen me, because they waddled purposefully along the low ledge of rocks that jutted diagonally into the shallows. They had a forward-leaning walk, with wings held back. When faced with a change in elevation they hunched even farther forward and flung themselves with a floppy, double-legged hop. Their awkwardness was enchanting. (But deceptive: later in the trip I would watch them swimming just below the surface of the ocean, where they moved with shocking speed and grace.)

At 5:35 they reached the end of the ledge and disappeared belly-first into the water, off to catch fish for the day. Two penguins counted.

There are days when I worry I'm somehow failing to take full advantage of my travel opportunities. Today wasn't one of them. As light slowly filled the sky I sat there in my tussock, at the bottom of the world, with skuas and giant petrels cruising the air above me. Masses of kelp filled the inlets and edges of the shore, looking like a writhing, self-animated creature. Bits of it would flip up suddenly, like the flipper of a sea lion or a whale.

Pairs of Auckland Island teal swam among the kelp. Auckland Island shags sat like sentries on the rocks. An Auckland Island pipit kept coming back to the same spot in front of me, poking its long beak around near the puddles at the edge of rock and grass.

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The view from my tussock on Rose Island (with skua)

Before the end of the count I saw a couple more penguins jump in, far down the beach. Then at 9:00 I stood up, stretched, and made my way back to the pickup point. We all piled back into the dinghy and returned to Evohe. I was pretty happy to have seen four yellow-eyed penguins, each of whom presumably had a nest hidden nearby where their partners would be tending chicks. But total numbers on Rose Island were down from last year.

As if the morning's activities counted as work, in the afternoon we were due for our first recreational excursion. Our destination: the broccoli forest of Auckland Island. I'm not sure what I expected, but when we stepped into that forest I was surprised.

The southern rātā trees, which looked impenetrably dense from the outside, turned out to be a mere shell. Underneath we found their twisted trunks but almost no other vegetation. When we looked up, our eyes were dazzled by channels of sky running through the dark canopy, a mosaic of crown shyness.

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The lack of undergrowth, said ranger Juzah, is on account of the pigs. Pigs were originally brought to this mammal-less island as a food supply for castaways from frequent shipwrecks. As New Zealand's biggest subantarctic island, this is the only one from which mammalian pests have yet to be eradicated. (It also has mice and cats.)

We continued through the forest until we reached the ruins of a mid-19th-century settlement. Unsurprisingly, it had lasted only two years.

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An early rātā blossom, fallen on the forest floor

As we dinghied back to Evohe we were treated to another violent hail and wind storm. Sounds of dismay ensued and were jovially brushed off by helmsman Hamish. “It wouldn’t do to be in the subantarctics and have it be sunny," he said.

Now I’m in my bunk. I heard someone say that the crew would be getting up at 3, which scared me into bed early. I just washed my hair for the first time in about a week, in a perfunctory and water-conserving manner. I can hear the rest of the group going a bit loopy in the main saloon: John apparently has his stethoscope out and Richard is taking everyone's blood pressure. Ah, the shipboard life.

Naturalist Ashore 10 November 2017 Webling Bay and Chambres Inlet

Once again I spent a morning on Evohe's deck searching in vain for penguins: this time in Webling Bay, which is pronounced "Wibbling" in Kiwi. After the count, we congregated for snacks in the main saloon and somehow ended up competing in feats of athletic prowess. The usual kind of stuff: pushups, pullups, and highland dancing. Hard to deny the Scottish influence among Southland New Zealanders.

We cruised south along the crenelated east coast of the main Auckland Island toward Chambres Inlet. Along the way, one of the veteran crew members pointed out a rockhopper colony. Through binoculars I could just make out some penguiny shapes on a ledge of dark rocks near the water, with a big headland towering behind.

Chambres Inlet will be the site of tomorrow's penguin count. But today the four DoC rangers had a mission to install fish traps in some of the streams, in hopes of learning what freshwater fish species inhabit these islands. They asked if I wanted to come, and I definitely did.

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We dinghied to shore and waded up a stream and set the first trap in place. On the way back to the dinghy pickup point, I couldn't resist whipping out my sketchbook to draw some of the giant limpets covering the intertidal rocks. DoC ranger Sarah noticed, and offered to let me stay behind to sketch. The afternoon was just getting better and better.

" Naturalist sketches from the subantarctic: ferns, red-billed gull, limpet, southern rātā, kelp (Chambres Inlet, New Zealand) A post shared by Abby McBride (@sketchbiologist) on Dec 2, 2017 at 5:41pm PST   "

The rangers went off in the dinghy to their remaining sites while I stayed behind. I sat on the rocks and sketched. I wandered around in the trees and sketched. It was maybe the best hour of the trip so far.

The steep slopes of the coastal forest were crisscrossed with trails, made not by humans but by sea lions. At one point I watched one sea lion surf onto shore and seem to contemplate an uphill journey through the trees.

It was huge and sleek and shiny from the water and looked entirely unsuited to moving around on this island. I knew that wasn't true, but the next morning I would find out just how untrue it was.

TO BE CONTINUED in Part Three...

Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

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