• Steve Wilde


Updated: Nov 27, 2018

This story is about the time I went to Antarctica and found a place so beautiful it made me cry.

Two Emperor Penguins stand guard at Cape Washington, Antarctica.
Two Emperor Penguins stand guard at Cape Washington, Antarctica.

It is perhaps one of the most spellbinding sights I have ever witnessed. As the chopper engines gently swirl to silence, there they stand, tens of thousands of Emperor Penguins - looking straight back at me. Our noisy arrival has rudely interrupted their chit-chat. I walk towards them. Soon I am surrounded. They are so tame, unafraid of humans. Curious.

They are proud and fearless birds

Surrounded by thousands of chicks, backed by the sight of icebergs trapped in the frozen bay, it's a sight which brings me to tears.

It's their size which makes the first impact. They're about 120 centimetres tall. Each adult has a striking yellow ear patch, which sweeps onto an iridescent white breast. This plumage beautifully catches the late November sunlight. Each feather is so tightly compacted, the effect is like woven wool. They need that. It's minus 22 degrees Celsius.

An Emperor Penguin at Cape Washington, Antarctica, shows of its plumage.
The white breast plumage catches the suns rays, creating an iridescent masterpiece.

An inhospitable place to bring up a young one

Even more compelling is the fact the adults are looking after their chicks - with love. These juveniles are still in their "first coat", a silver-grey fluffy down. They call for their parents incessantly. A sort of light whistling, which is repeated thousands of times across the colony. The adults however have a shrill call. Guttural. But they are very loving towards their young.

Each season the mother lays just one precious egg, then leaves for the open sea. The father, her life partner, will incubate the egg in his special brood pouch, a thick and warm stomach overhang, for over 60 days, in the eternal Antarctic winter darkness. Hunkered down. Sometimes battered by 200 kilometre an hour winds. The mother will return just as the egg hatches. Stomach full now after her sea-binge, they will take turns to feed the chick.

Steve Wilde gets up close to an Emperor Penguin at cape Washington, Antarctica.
I greet one of these regal birds at his own level, with a majestic iceberg backdrop.

A landscape so surreal it looks like a painting

The clear Antarctic air creates an optical illusion of distance. Landmarks 40 kilometres away seem close to the touch.

Marooned in Terra Nova Bay are giant icebergs, snagged in place when the sea froze in June. They form a surreal backdrop, which looks more like a painting, than anything real life can imagine. These yellow tinged, ice-mountains, are etched against the duck-egg-blue sky. But this scene is very real.

These icebergs will in time be free again, when the warm Katabatic winds roar down from the centre of the continent in February. The bay ice will break apart. The penguin's creche will be destroyed and they will be forced to migrate. They'll march away across the ice sheet, sometimes for 100 kilometres, and launch themselves into the cold southern water. There, they will gorge themselves at sea for months. Krill, Fish, Squid. A veritable fresh Antarctic smorgasbord. Then as the eternal night returns to the South Pole, the Emperor's will head back to their home on the Cape Washington ice and the whole breeding cycle will begin once again.

A giant rock face, Cape Washington, leaps out into the white tinged abyss. Its looming hulk provides perspective, in a landscape where the air is so clear, a mountain range 40 kilometres away, seems touch-like close.

But the most dominating feature of all is Mount Melbourne. The penguin rookery is dwarfed by this stratovolcano. Its slopes gently reach a jaggy cone, which while still active, throws out no smoke.

Mount Melbourne dominates the Cape Washington area.
Mount Melbourne dominates the Cape Washington area.

Vainglorious, the brother volcano Mount Erebus, is the most dominating feature of all

Unlike its vainglorious brother Mount Erebus, to the south of here, Mount Melbourne is less chaotic. Erebus regularly spews out lava bombs, from its persistently convecting phonolitic lava lake. Erebus likes to show off. Melbourne is more content.

The Campbell Glacier Ice Tongue, Antarctica.
The Campbell Glacier Ice Tongue.

The Campbell Glacier Ice Tongue, Antarctica.
The Campbell Glacier Ice Tongue, a dramatic antidote to the gentleness of Mount Melbourne.

But Mount Melbourne's benignness is upstaged by the dramatic Campbell Glacier Tongue, whose projection extends far out into the frozen Terra Nova Bay. The height of its face is easily 100 stories. Our helicopter forms a mere pin-spot against this proud chilly edifice.

Melt pools pockmark the surface of the Cambell Glacier Ice Tongue, Antarctica.
The Campbell Glacier Tongue surface is pocked by melt pools.

The top of the Campbell Ice Tongue is alien and colourful. Anyone who thinks Antarctica is white, is in for a surprise. Blue. Yellow. Green. Even red. It's all there, locked in the ice. Ready to reveal itself, just as you think you couldn't gasp, jaw-wide, at another stunning revelation.

The southern edge of Terra Nova Bay. Earthen. Volcanic.
The southern edge of Terra Nova Bay. Earthen. Volcanic.

There is real earth here too. I did not expect to see this. I thought the whole land would be sheet-white-like. The soil is volcanic. Sometimes black. More often brown. Dead earth. Bare rocky and barren.

The wind erodes rocks in Antarctica, creating sculptures, almost if if by human hands.
Magical rock formations are formed through thousands of years of wind action.

That rock is whimsically transformed as the wind carefully sculpts its form, over millions of years. The shapes become impossible. As if planned, by a careful playful hand.

Back at the colony, the Emperor Penguins are playing now too. As if to say, you are in our world. They tease. A line of five giant birds heavily belly flop to the ice and in choreographed sequence, flipper-coast past me, stand up and individually waddle back into the creche.

The young, some without their parents, who are searching for food at the end of the ice sheet, nibble annoyingly at their neighbours.

Five Emperor Penguins slide across the ice at cape Washington, Antarctica.
Let's slide this one out. Five giant Emperor's decide to show off.

They are content, these very regal birds. They are very much at ease, in their home, in one of the few places still almost totally unspoilt by humans on the face of this earth. But while Antarctica seems so untouched, the irony is not lost on me as I hear the sound of the helicopter engine spooling up in the distance.

The Emperor's once again turn to face the loud noise. It's almost like they're saying what are you doing here?

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