Gentoo penguins slip, slide, and waddle across the ice and snow. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)
Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender braves the crystalline cold of a tiny Antarctic island to watch a Gentoo penguin pair as they go apartment hunting.
CURWOOD: From the lush equatorial tropics of Borneo we take you now to the snow and ice of Antarctica. Mark Seth Lender, Living on Earth’s explorer in residence brings us this essay about a pair of penguins setting up their own residence.
© 2018 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved
The island is by itself, out in the center of an open circle of land like a navel of a volcanic cone, though all the volcano here about just off the Antarctic peninsula long ago burnt out, their heat extinguished. Now the warmth (too much of it) instead of rising from beneath descends from the air.
A colony of penguins still lives there. Gentoos, with big pink-orange feet and bright red-orange beaks, plump white bellies, deep blue-black along their densely feathered backs and flippers and their brush-like tails. They enter the sea to feed and return scrambling up the sheer edges of the fast ice. They climb the steep slopes, then slide and paddle along the snow covered rich from one small gathering to another, collected without apparent purpose.
Near the highpoint where the blue basalt is too worn at the crown for ice and snow to cling, a pair of gentoos are off by themselves. They have the look (rounded and well-fed) of an older married couple late and entering middle age. In penguin years? They probably are. In penguin heart and mind still young, proved by what they are doing here: Picking out what will be their family home.
She lies in a depression in the rock that rounds to her shape like a bowl. He stands by, while she tests the comfort of the place. They all but close their eyes, as if the future is screened for them behind the lids. And he bows all the way down to her as she opens her mouth calling up to him, then him to her. And their beaks cross and though they do not touch, in this way begins the making of a choice that is no choice but only determined (or so it is claimed) by the force of something built into them. A ritual performed by rote and not by mind? Perhaps...
But then, she climbs out.
Together they peer in.
Walk, all around the edge of the bowl looking it over.
He steps into the middle. Settles on his feet. Climbs out. They call to each other again bending low and crossing beaks, again.
Now, her turn.
She stands inside.
It’s comfortable enough, yes, and the right size, yes, and the eggs will fit and not roll out. Their gaze explains all the considerations.
He looks all around surveying the view. They close their eyes again (he likes it too) they pause, not moving now, as if to say, “Let’s take it. It works for us.”
They will stay here.
It is mutual, no question of that. And little question it was mostly up to her. All the while she was laying down she reached out, her flipper at a deliberate angle of no necessity for either balance, nor measurement, but just enough to rest upon his feet.
CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Mark Seth Lender.
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