The Truth About Penguins

Sometimes the circle of life is just vermin getting what they deserve.
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Anybody who gets to ski the Antarctic Peninsula is lucky. Lucky to witness the beauty of psychedelic blue icebergs. Lucky to live on a ship, and take dinghies to shore for ski excursions. Lucky to descend decades-old ice as it corns up under polar sunshine.

Only a few Antarctic skiers, however, are lucky enough to behold the circle of life as it pertains to gentoo penguins and leopard seals.

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I journeyed to the bottom of the world with the typical idea of penguins. They seem so cute, waddling around in those tuxedos of theirs! But just days after I left the stuffed-penguin-stuffed gift shops of Argentina, the birds put me in mind of the old backhanded compliment: good from far, but far from good.

In the water, penguins are more impressive than cute. They swim beautifully, rainbowing through the surf like dolphins. They speed to 25 mph toward ice shelves. To make the transition to land, they explode out of the sea, lean back, and land on their webbed feet. The younger ones propel themselves much higher than necessary, as if to shout, “Flightless bird, my ass.”

Up close, penguins stink. Literally and figuratively, with their foul behavior. At a Ukrainian science station, a meteorologist bemoaned: “They leave very bad smells. Ugh! They’re very funny but we hate them. When I go to check equipment, they bite my calves.”

My ship anchored in a narrow inlet called Circumcision Bay. Penguin rookeries line it on both sides. The sheer volume of penguin crap—scummy flotsam ranging in color from red to brown to green—made it impossible for our desalinator to collect potable water. We went a full week between showers.

The gentoo penguin dominates local wildlife the way Norway rats proliferated in New York. Since 1950, climate change has caused a 60 percent decrease in (truly attractive) Adélie penguins and a concomitant explosion in gentoos. Still, they’re cuter than Norway rats, so they regularly drew a parade of Zodiacs from distant cruise ships to Circumcision Bay. Then one day, gentoos also attracted a hungry leopard seal.

The 700-pound leopard seal is the only Antarctic seal with a taste for warm blood. (In 2003, a leopard killed a human for the first time, munching a scuba- diving British marine biologist.) The leopard swam past me, aiming at a swimming gentoo. It dipped deep, surged up, then snapped its jaws around the penguin.

“Leopard seals perforate the penguins’ spines,” my ship’s captain said. Indeed. Though its initial bite likely killed the penguin, the seal kept at its homicidal thrashing as if to humiliate it, playing for long moments with the carcass. I watched the increasingly denuded bird sink, the seal dive after it, bite off a chunk, and then heave it again into the air. It came to look less like a gentoo and more like a skeleton with a beak.

One final toss and the skeleton plunged through its own floating bloodstain toward the bottom of the bay. How does one react to such a spectacle? I could have celebrated the penguin’s noble sacrifice and then waxed poetic about the circle of life. Instead I thought: Serves you right, krill breath, for shitting in my desalinator.

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