Friday, November 21, 2008

Lucky Penguin, Lucky People

A couple of days ago, both Steve Bodio and Beverly brought this video to my attention (a longer version can be found here). Beverly traced the video back to Brendan Pope's blog Antarctica Srsly, where according to Brendan this video was taken near Vernadsky Station, a Ukranian base in the Argentine Islands on the Antarctic Peninsula. A few more tidbits about this area - Vernadsky used to be the British Antarctic station Faraday. The ozone hole above Antarctica was first detected because of long-term atmospheric monitoring that occurred at Faraday and which continues today at Vernadsky. Also, Oceanites has conducted a few years of intensive monitoring on nearby Peterman Island, where the French explorer Charcot conducted some penguin census work over 100 years ago. More on that later. Also, you should check out Brendan's blog. Although he is no longer on station, it provides you with an interesting look at life at Palmer Station. Brendan had the same job that I did when I first went to Antarctica, and although the names and faces have changed, life on station still sounds very familiar.
OK, back to the video.

Although my first reaction was that this was a spectacular glimpse into Orca hunting behavior, that reaction was quickly followed by angst at the appalling lack of knowledge of animal behavior by the occupants of the zodiac. Here is an analogy - image you are in Africa and you observe a pride of lions hunting Impala. As the chase progresses, the Impala, in a desperate panic to live, jumps into the middle of your open top land rover with the lions right on it's tail. I doubt many people would be laughing and carrying on as the occupants of the zodiac were doing in this video.
Even sitting in my living room watching this video I wanted to get further away from that action.
I have had penguins jump in my zodiac before, but never for this reason. As soon as they realized where they were they vacated the zodiac as soon as they could. The penguin in this video obviously decided to choose the lesser of two evils and stay in the boat.
Although Orcas are not known to have attacked people in Antarctica, they are a very large, adept, predator of penguins and marine animals, many about the same size as a person. I wrote about the experience of my friend Stefan Lundgren with an orca a couple of years ago here. I also remember visiting with some of the Faraday staff about them watching an Orca bust through the bottom of a flat ice pan to knock a sleeping seal into the water. Then there was the video taken by Lindblad staff from a cruise just prior to mine a couple of years ago that shows a pod of Orcas speeding towards a flat ice pan with a seal sleeping on it and just as they reached the edge of the ice they dove under in tandem and generated a wave that washed over the ice and swept the seal into the water where it as killed.
So. I have a very healthy respect for these animals and I would be very puckered up if I was in a zodiac in a situation like that shown in the video. It only takes one curious and hungry individual to see what those funny looking penguins on that odd iceberg taste like and I really don't want to be that appetizer. I think these people are very lucky they weren't tasted too.


Beverly said...

My sentiments EXACTLY! I've watched enough nature shows to know those big fellas are perfectly capable of upturning the little boat. I'd have thought that, while their hunt-mode was working full throttle, they might easily have done exactly that...especially after hearing your stories regarding how intelligent they are in their hunting styles! I don’t understand how folks could put themselves in such a situation without knowing more about animal behavior.

Heck, I’m no scientist, but anybody who’s watched any nature shows at all would know enough to be sitting in wet wetsuit watching the Orcas circle that tiny little boat while the penguin hopped back and forth just out of reach and they were leaning over the edge watching the huge beasts go under the boat! Sheeshhhhhhhhhhhhh

I’m tickled you enjoyed the little clip and the website. It’s always nice to get ‘notes from home’, huh?

Anonymous said...

That was cool. I thought though, with the Killer Whales sweeping the seal off the ice floe video, that they eventually let the seal go, back on to the ice floe. That it appeared to be a "training session" for the younger whales.

Or was that explanation just to placate people who didn't want to know about the messy aftermath?

John Carlson said...

Clare - Yes, that video was sanitized for public viewing much to the staff's chagrin. The whales did in fact place the now dead seal back on the flow and repeat the scene again. Apparently for the benefit of the calf in the pod as you noted. I will have to look to see if that video is posted on the web someplace.