Since I’ve been at McMurdo I’ve heard an incredible number of stories from people who’ve been down for 3, 4, 5 years and NEVER seen a penguin. I was worried. The possibility of this happening to me was unacceptable. I was on a mission.
Twice so far my plan had been thwarted. The first time, I had been out walking on the ice and saw fresh penguin tracks only to discover that they went in circles until finally disappearing. The second time, I was bumped off a tour to Cape Evans Hut that was overfull, and that group had 11 emperor penguins come up and stare at them. I was devastated, but persisted onward.
My last Sunday in McMurdo. It was now or never to get on another tour to Cape Evans. I showed up an hour early for the tour. The list was full. There were 8 alternates. My hands were sweaty as I waited to see if they had extra space. My pee bottle was nearly full in fear. I was in luck, 10 people cancelled. They called out my name and I boarded the monstrosity that is the Delta vehicle.
(The Delta is a vehicle that they use to transport up to 20 people over the sea ice to any location at the astonishing speed of 10 mph. It’s fuel efficiency is measured in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. Maybe.)
We were an hour and half into our drive when we came to halt on the sea ice. The driver had pulled over so we could take pictures of a glacier (oh boy, more ice). We were climbing back on the truck when someone called out “there’s two black dots in the distance”. Penguins.
The little creatures were nearly two miles off and coming straight for us. They moved insanely quickly; running, hopping, and sliding they made it over to us in record time. They looked like little aliens, the way they stood out against the white landscape and how awkwardly they moved. As they got closer we could see that it was a pair of Adelie penguins. Penguins are funny little bastards. If they see humans on the ice, they’ll coming running up to check you out, presumably since they think you’re another penguin and might share some warmth or company. As these guys came up and stared at us, they brightly noticed that we were not, in fact, similar. Squaking to themselves they ran off to the next dark spot on the landscape.
There’s no way to adequately describe how strange it is to see them move. I’ve seen footage before, but in person it’s another experience entirely. It’s like watching an alien in a tuxedo hobble forward without bending its knees. While wearing a back brace. Easy enough to imagine?
I had accomplished my penguin goal. I wouldn’t have to return home ashamed. When people will ask me “Did you see any penguins while you were in Antarctica?”, I won’t have to turn away and hide the tears. I can stand there proudly and say, “Yes. Yes M’am, I saw penguins.”