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Sex, lies, and videotape: Penguin style

Erin at Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Erin at Brown Bluff, Antarctica
Camping was great, but you can't knock indoor plumbing. I don't mind roughing it, but there's just no running behind a tree in Antarctica. And Mr. Yummy - the makeshift toilet set up for our camping adventure - was clearly not designed by a woman. So bathing, napping, and eating hot food were not an unwelcome way to spend our morning back on the ship.

That afternoon, Cuverville Island would be our only stop of the day and the last of our journey. The landing site consisted of a 300-meter beach with gentoo colonies on either side. This was a particular treat for me, as I had all but fallen in love with the gentoos and had ultimately declared them my favorite penguin for their jaunty personalities. The walk down to the colony consisted of a snowy hillside that was traversed by 'penguin highways' - paths that led back and forth from water to higher ground. Often we would just see little heads sticking up over the ledge as they trucked down the path. The colony itself was a treat to watch, once again proving that it never gets old. We saw displays of courtship that were almost too personal to have witnessed. One female kept splaying herself out for a seemingly interested male who would respond by continually bringing her more and more rocks, unaware of how to close the deal. Another female was more successful in attracting a mate and enjoyed perhaps the best 2 seconds of her life as a reward (don't blink while watching the video). Other penguins watched these displays from close range, as interested as us.

For fun, I sidled up to Derek the Naturalist, and asked him what kind of birds he thought we were looking at (knowing, of course, that gentoos were rather unmistakable and we had seen them every single day). 'Those are blue-footed boobies,' he replied, without missing a beat. 'Which is a misnomer really, as they have neither blue feet, nor boobies.' Enthralled with the colony, I stayed even after others had retreated, and Derek, Brian, and I witnessed our second major Circle of Life moment of the trip, when an Antarctic skua snatched an egg out from under an incubating gentoo. Sad as it was, it provided an intriguing story as we watched the skua carry the egg away and try to crack it open, carrying it around and pushing at it unsuccessfully with its bill for quite some time. At one point it picked up the egg, carried it over to the penguin highway closest to us, dropped it on the ground, and seemingly looked over at us for help. I yelled instructions out to the skua and Derek volunteered to go down there and crack it open himself, but all to no avail. Soon the wind picked up and we had to return to the ship before the weather turned any worse. The skua was no closer to success as we headed out. We had a rocky ride back to the ship as snow and wind whipped at us, but it almost completed the experience: might as well top off all the fantastic weather we had with a little 'authentic' Antarctica cold before heading home. And it probably made it easier to head back to the ship for good than warmth and a clear sky might have.

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