Ninja, the Teenage Mutant Adélie Penguin of Cape Adare
Story by Dr Regina Eisert, 12 February 2023
We arrive on the Antarctic continent at Cape Adare, site of the famous hut built by Carsten Borchgrevink. During spring and summer, Ridley Beach to the south of the Cape is home of a large colony of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). The end of summer is near and many birds have already left to feed at sea but a few stragglers remain along the beach.
Chicks with haphazard remnants of baby down wander through the area, begging and chasing adult penguins for food. Underfoot, circles of small rocks mark former nests. Most of all, the overwhelming smell gives us an idea of what this place must be like at the height of the breeding season.
We have been very lucky with the weather so far and today is another beautiful day of stunning Antarctic views. The cheerful sunlight makes for a stark contrast with the harsh reality of the colony: dead chicks and bones litter the ground, and the living penguins are surrounded by predators looking to make a meal of the weak and careless.
A narrow escape!
As soon as we step on the beach, we notice an ominous disturbance in the water travelling parallel to the shoreline. Three wide-eyed penguin chicks jump out onto a tiny ice floe with extreme haste, scrambling to get as far away from the water as possible. Seconds later, the reason for their haste lifts its reptilian head of the water: a leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx). The seal circles the ice floe a few times but when the penguins remain out of reach, it moves on. After a prudent amount of time, the penguins make their escape. A close call. From his drone, Colin detects a second leopard seal patrolling the coast. After having a good long look at the ship’s zodiacs, the seal meanders through the clear waters of the bay, casually mauling floating ice in its path, unaware that its antics are being filmed by humans. Perhaps a young leopard seal, or one that is well-fed and playful?
Small but feisty
Penguins are not safe on land, either. South polar skuas (Catharacta maccormicki) and southern giant petrels (Macronectes giganteus) glide low over the colony or sit watching from vantage points atop blocks of ice.
A chick still half-covered in down has wandered off from the other penguins and suddenly finds itself alone facing two skuas. After sizing each other up for a moment, one of the skuas launches itself talons first at the penguin chick. The second skua looks on, seemingly confident that the little penguin will shortly become a meal for two. To our surprise, the chick hits back hard at its would-be predator and repels the attack with a fierceness. The skua tries again, drawing up its wings to full height, but the chick is not the least bit intimidated and runs at the skua.
When its attacker retreats momentarily, the chick—cheered by human onlookers—makes a break for it and runs at full speed towards us. ‘Go Ninja Go’, the humans shout. The brave little penguin (a.k.a. Ninja) makes a beeline for us and takes shelter next to the crates of drone equipment. He knows the skuas will not follow him here. He is safe for now. His little face looks relieved and weary, all ferocity forgotten.
From the early days of Antarctic exploration, humans have been impressed the stubborn fearlessness of Adélie penguins that seems out of all proportion to their size and droll appearance. Their courage starts from a young age, matching the challenges inherent in growing up in one of the harshest places on Earth.
Posted: 28 February 2023