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Learning life lessons from penguin society


The baby’s crying; the dishwasher needs replacing; the roof leaks, and the kids are squabbling. It seems as if it’s time for a remedy. Definitely, it’s time for a vacation. We could head off to Italy and douse ourselves in wine and savor spaghetti swirls. We could venture to Spain and clap our hands, click castanets, and stamp our feet. Or the Cayman Islands might be the solution. Soaking up sunshine on Seven Mile Beach or feeding stingrays would leave no energy for thoughts of back-home woes. Or,better yet, we could fly down to Ushuaia, the bottom of Argentina. There, we could set forth on a Quark Expedition for twenty days, travelling to Falkland Islands (Malvinas,) South Georgia, and Antarctica. Along the way, we will encounter whales, sheep, seals, birds, and, did I mention, penguins. Indeed, the penguins will be the ones that will teach me much about life.
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Argentina and Great Britain might continue their battles over the Falkland Islands (to Argentina, they are called Malvinas) for the rest of the century. In contrast, the wildlife knows perfectly well how to live together. The rockhopper penguins are poetry in motion. Non-stop, they bounce from rock to rock. Black crests adorn the back of their heads, and thin yellow crests run back from above the eyes to end in droopy plumes. Macaronis are a bit taller than the rockhoppers, but they share the terrain as if teammates. The golden crest of the macaroni is joined in a broad band across the forehead, sweeping into beautiful drooping plumes. If a macaroni is ill, the colors will not be vibrant. This will present a problem in attracting a mate. I thought I could almost sense an understanding glance from a rockhopper or two over to a suffering macaroni, “Hey, my friend, life will get better. You’ll get well. There will yet be a girlfriend for you.” In their playful antics, they taught me to reach beyond my own group, invite others into joining me in the Game of Life, and give an encouraging nod to one having a bit of a hard time.

120115967 (3)The king penguins would become my favorite. The most colorful of all penguins, they have silvery-grey backs with blackish-brown heads and striking orange ear patches. In groups of four or five, they would waltz up to me. After a cursory glance, one would point north, one would gesture south, another signal east, and another motion west. Were they telling me which way to go? Or were they telling me that any direction would be fine? They would watch me, as if letting me know that I would not become lost. A reassuring feeling swept over me from my new-found friends. Life is better when others care. Greater lessons I would learn from them when thousands greeted us at South Georgia.

Nonetheless, Falkland Islands provided a brilliant introduction from Penguin Professors. Sheep meandered to and fro among the penguins. Every so often they would skip over the carcass of a beached whale to graze in grassland above the beach. Albatross would spread their mighty wings and soar over all, bestowing their approval on the sight below. Quickly I forgot the chill of the location. I walked along the shoreline, discarded my parka, and felt warm. It’s a memory and feeling I often call back, learning that harmony dispels the freezing anguish of discord.

Back aboard Quark’s ship Ocean Diamond, we headed from Falkland Islands to South Georgia. I anticipated seeing hundreds of king penguins. Instead, I saw thousands. The island’s total breeding population is over 450,000 pairs and numbers are rising with new colonies being formed. From them, I learned about family ties and family work. The king penguin, like its close relative the emperor penguin, lays only a single egg and builds no nest but holds the egg on its feet under a fold of skin. The parents take turns holding the large single egg which hatches in about 54 days. By the time it is six weeks old, the chick is half the size and half the weight of its parents and has molted to a thick brown down coat. Unlike the smaller penguins, kings occupy their rookeries all year, and the summer visitor will see chicks and eggs, or both small and large chicks, at the same time, as well as stages of courtship. Viewing the kings’ colonies was like being invited into the home of a multi-generation family, one that knew how to work and live together. Not only do the parents share in the incubation of the egg, they share in its feeding. Mom and Dad will rotate their schedule, swimming up to several hundred kilometers to find food for their chicks. It seemed as if they were acknowledging their cooperative efforts to bring forth and raise the next generation. Elephant seals (with males weighing up to four tons) surrounded the kings. These gigantic pre-historic looking slugs paid no attention to the kings, and likewise the kings ignored the seals, busy with their own agendas of Family Building. They taught me to eliminate any hint of stigma to a “Stay at Home Dad” or a “Career Mom.” They worked together in this thing called “Parenthood,” sharing its challenges and joys.
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The macaronis, gentoos, chinstraps, and every so often the Adelies breed and live on South Georgia. However, they taught me a valuable life lesson on a cold and blustering day in Paradise Harbor in Antarctica. Bundled up in my parka, hand-warmers inside my gloves, and wishes for hot chocolate to warm my insides, we landed via Zodiac onto the shore of Paradise Harbor. The chinstrappers seemed to be the feisty ones, ready at a moment’s notice to steal a buddy’s prized rock. The gentoos would gather in groups, rather sheep-like in following one another. The Adelies would collect on a rock at the beach edge. Half a dozen or so of them would prod another to be the first to jump in for a swim. Then the spectators would wait a minute or two, make sure their friend was not swallowed up by a hungry seal, and off the others would follow. They would synchronize swim, propel a foot above water level, and submerge themselves at a moment’s notice. Group comradeship and rivalry played together, as if a natural part of life. I looked on and marveled at the penguins’ abilities to go with the flow.

Chinstrap penguin with stoneThe crew from Quark marked the trail at Paradise Harbor. Easily, we would share the pathway with the penguins. One Adelie particularly captured my interest. The male comes to the breeding ground first, with anticipation of presenting his selected female with a rock. He trudged up the hill from the beach, about a third of a mile. Inside his mouth, he protected his prized pebble. He began to build a nest about 30 to 40 cm. in diameter. He placed the rock carefully in his chosen site, looking for the approval of his female partner. All around him sat other penguins, ready to steal the rock if he, even for a moment, glanced away. Oh, life can be hard when it comes to winning the love of one’s life. If the rock were stolen (and there’s a good chance of this,) the Adelie simply shrugged, headed down the trail again to the beach, chose another pebble, and marched upward to the nest once more. I like that the male is the nest builder, the pursuer, and the one who, come hell or high water, plods ahead with life. What woman wouldn’t love to have a partner like that?!

120115470 (3)Now back home, and thanks to Quark and penguins, I am able to tackle things and put them into perspective. When the baby cries, she just needs to be rocked. The broken dishwasher was long over-due for replacement. A few shingles easily patched the leaking roof. And kids are meant to squabble; it’s part of being siblings. The penguins have much greater challenges and threats than I do. They live in a rugged world, a mixture of hostility and beauty. Together, they play, swim, build and upset budding romances, bring forth new life, and dedicate themselves to the nourishing of the young and the furthering of the next generation. I learned from them that if they can do it, so can I!

Bonnie Lynn traveled with Quark expeditions on their Explorers and Kings Antarctic cruise.

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