Counting Penguins So You Don't Have To - Antarctic Fieldwork Explained

Words by: Grant Humphries

Photos by: Ian Parker, Grant Humphries

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Three Gentoo penguins in snow Antarctica white
 

10, 11, 12… 10, 11, 12… 10, 11, 12… 

Three times I repeat these final numbers and write them in my notebook. Three times I say goodbye to my feathered comrades that I admire so much. Three times I smile and thank the universe for affording me the opportunity to contribute to such an important and unique program. 

I am part of a team of scientists whose sole purpose in Antarctica is to categorize and census penguin populations for the Antarctic Site Inventory, a program run by the non-profit organization Oceanites. In other words, during the Antarctic field season I am a professional penguin counter.

From November to February, our team works with tour industry partners onboard vessels carrying paying passengers back and forth to Antarctica - the icy home of some of the most interesting species of birds on the planet. 

 
Man standing among penguins on beach Antarctica
 

While on board we give lectures, interact with passengers (in my case, sometimes regale them with songs and stories about my home province of Newfoundland), and help out with basic operations when asked. In return, we are given bunk spaces and get the opportunity to go to remote penguin colonies that are not visited by any other research teams. 


Our team works with tour industry partners onboard vessels carrying paying passengers back and forth to Antarctica - the icy home of some of the most interesting species of birds on the planet. 


Oceanites has been doing this for 25 years and is the only non-profit / NGO that has been operating in Antarctica this long working on science-based conservation. The program collects data across the entire Antarctic Peninsula on all three Pygoscelid penguins (Gentoo, Chinstrap and Adélie). It is a special team to be affiliated it, and one that I nearly missed out on.

My life may have taken a very different path had it not been for two split-second decisions that led me to my first Antarctic season. At the time, I was working as a post-doctoral researcher at UC Davis in California and was applying for new positions. One specific position arose in Idaho which would have had me living in a small border community and flying back and forth to Alaska - #LivingTheDream as the new generation might put it. However, I wanted to play it safe and at the last minute applied for a position at Stony Brook University on Long Island as well. 

This particular position was advertised as a mostly computer-based job with no mention of possible field work. I was interviewed and was soon offered the spot. Despite this, I had no intention of living in New York around throngs of people in a country I didn’t really want to be in… Until these words changed my life: “I’ll get you to Antarctica.” 

The moment I heard that, the horror of living in a suburban nightmare melted away and I made my decision very quickly. Soon I was heading for New York on a cross-country road trip and not long after, I was whisked away to Antarctica for an unbelievable season aboard the Akademik Sergey Vavilov.

The process of counting penguins seems easy enough; after all, everyone can count! But as I soon found out, there are logistical difficulties that make counting penguins more adventurous than expected. First, there’s getting to the penguins. On the Antarctic Peninsula, most colonies are free from threats like fur seals (which can be vicious and aggressive), yet every so often we find them invading landing beaches. This makes it difficult to find a safe spot to go ashore.

 
Fur seal on old boat on beach at Deception Island Antarctica
 

The weather can change rapidly and dangerously, which is why we always carry a safety bag with us ashore in case of trouble. There are also slippery rocks and sometimes we are far away from the ships, on our own with naught but a radio to keep us company.  

The next challenge is actually counting the birds! This might sound silly, but trying to remember how many birds you’ve just counted and which birds are already counted is actually a trying task in a colony of 2,000 + penguins. 

We also need to identify what to count – we don’t count every single penguin in the colony, we only aim to count nests or chicks. Nests can be somewhat easy to identify as the adults space themselves out nicely and sit still. But sometimes it may not be so simple to figure out whether a bird is sitting on a nest or just sitting… That’s when you play the waiting game, looking for signs of an egg or a chick underneath the birds. This can be frustrating and often elicits thoughts of making loud noises or shooting off fireworks so you could just walk up and count the nests. However, we operate on a little to no interference policy to make sure we don’t disturb the birds and cause unnecessary mortality. 


There are logistical difficulties that make counting penguins more adventurous than expected. 


With the data we collect from counting hatched chicks, we can estimate things like hatching success. Early in the season, this is easy enough as they are fluffy and cute and don’t move much. But this changes fast, and in February many of the chicks start running around. 

Penguin chicks are curious little buggers. Instead of fleeing, they come close to check you out. Suddenly that group of chicks you were just counting merges with another group, which merges with another, and then splits apart again. This is when all your counting goes to pot. 

 
Close up of gentoo penguin Antarcica
 

Luckily, a system was put in place to help us out. It’s called the “Rule of Three.” Basically, we pick a group of birds that have some sort of identifiable split from other groups and then count that group three times. When we have three consecutive counts that have less than 5% difference from each other, we record those numbers in our notebook and then tally them up in our database when we return to the ship. Ensuring that level of accuracy means that when we analyze our data back in the real world, we can be certain of our counts.


Even though we might have a few more days at sea, the final three counts always mean the end of my time in Antarctica - when I have to say goodbye.


But the “Rule of Three” means that there’s always a final countdown, a final three…two….one. Even though we might have a few more days at sea, the final three counts always mean the end of my time in Antarctica - when I have to say goodbye and hang up my tallywhacker for the season. It is also the last time that I will come back to the ship smelling of penguin guano, a smell that I actually find oddly comforting as it reminds me of what I love about being in Antarctica - the wildlife. 

At the end of my three final counts, I immediately start to think about the next field season and the first three counts. These thoughts always keep me coming back for more.

More information about Oceanites can be found here.

 
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Letters From the Ends of the Earth is an online multimedia platform that brings the polar regions to you - through real stories, stunning photography, inspiring artwork, and informative resources. From Antarctica to the Arctic, Svalbard to South Georgia, this project shines a new and different kind of light on the unique experiences found at the Ends of the Earth.
 

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