The Emperor Penguin is probably the most charismatic of all penguins. It is known from several movies and documentaries like BBC’s Frozen Planet, but also more popular ones like the March of the Penguins or even Happy Feet. It is the largest of the extant penguin species, with its height of up to 1.3 meters and weight of up to 40 kg it is the same size as a small child. Added to this is their really nice behaviour and interactions, a weird breeding cycle on the sea ice starting at the beginning of the Antarctic winter (with temperatures that could get below -40ºC in hauling winds) and there extremely cute chicks.
But it’s also one of the most difficult penguins to see. There are 47 different Emperor Penguin colonies known around the coast of Antarctica, but most of them are nearly impossible to reach without planes, helicopters and/or icebreakers, or a combination of these. And it will almost always cost a lot of time and money.
The only relatively accessible colony is the one south of Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea. The northernmost colony in the world and, with a little luck reachable without an icebreaker (but with helicopters). At the moment Oceanwide Expeditions is the only company that tries to reach the colony with the mv Ortelius, the ship I work on most of the year. However, success on a trip like that is depending on a lot of factors. The most important is the ice situation. If there is too much ice, the Ortelius can’t get close enough to fly the passengers out with helicopters as was the case three years ago. If there is too little ice, or the ice is too rotten, you can’t land helicopters and walk over the ice to the colony, as we had the last two years. On top of the ice situation, the weather is really important as well when you want to fly around with helicopters.
All in all a daring trip. For now, we start our focus on finding lone Emperor Penguins, something we don’t manage to find on most of the trips to the Peninsula. But as we get closer to the colony, the chances of finding those are improving. And, so far so good, the first Emperor was found in on an ice floe in the Antarctic Sound and was kind enough to pose nicely for us before jumping into the water. In the following days, we’ll get even closer to the colony and we hope to find more…