A Penguin Counter’s Earth Day

When you work in Antarctica, as I have for 36 of the last 40 years, every day is Earth Day. Or World Penguin Day. This place, these animals, have left indelible impressions and emitted darts of light that have changed my life, changed my way of thinking about everything.

In Skype chats with schoolkids, I encourage their getting outside, no matter where they live, leaving computers and smartphones behind, to get to know their own backyards — who lives there, how many are there, how do things change from season to season, and so on. I was lucky. That’s what I did in the woods near my childhood Pennsylvania home, breathing some fresh air, gaining some independence, and starting to conjure how I fit into the scheme of things.

Fast forward a few decades and I’m camping with my team at remote Petermann Island in the vastly warmed Antarctic Peninsula, counting penguin nests and chicks as part of Oceanites’ Antarctic Site Inventory project, assessing changes in these populations. You can say I’ve been guano-fied from spending so much time over so many seasons cavorting with penguins and, no question, I’ve been privileged to savor moments ratcheting me to a loftier plane.

For example:

It’s a cold, 6:00 a.m., 25˚F. morning, it’s blowing a ‘hoolie’ outside my warm, little Petermann Island pup tent, I’ve just awakened, and all I can think about is racing up to our larger office tent, 50 yards away, to make some coffee. Unzipping the pup, I unexpectedly find myself face-to-face with one of the island’s gentoo penguins. These two-and-a-half foot tall, twelve pounders are the most common nesting penguin here and it’s the one Antarctic penguin species that’s managed to adapt quite well in this climate changed region.

My very plump, morning acquaintance won’t move. She or he is spiffy clean, having just returned from a feeding run and, between feverish bouts of feather-preening and shaking salt drip off its bill, it leans in, rolls its head back and forth and left and right, and stares at me. On land and out of the water, they’re quite near-sighted, and this one is definitely so, inching forward to the point where it almost careens into the tent and onto my lap. It starts nibbling on my legs, ankles to knees.

At one point, it raises its tail and shoots a frothy white stream of fishy guano onto the snow beyond. Then comes a loud mooing call – to which its mate, I presume, responds from a distance. Then back to me. I put my right hand on the tent jamb and my fingers become a new object for its bill-poking. And, then, my favorite part. It backs off, bows deeply for a couple of seconds, turns, and starts waddling inland.

Nothing better than a near-and-dear gentoo before breakfast! As often happens during these up-close-and-personal encounters — and I’ve had many — my heart is racing and pounding. This creature has just shared a bit of its life and routine with me, without fear, with obvious curiosity and little drama, and I am touched. In a fashion, I am flying, though my penguins can’t. And I am humbled, which we all should be each April, celebrating our planet and all who inhabit it.

Like the very small white flecks that litter a gentoo’s black head, I feel like a flea speck in the cosmos, really no different than any other creature, because Antarctica and penguins can overwhelm you. There’s no noise but the wind and penguin braying. No politicians, newspapers, radio, TV, or any back home hustle and bustle. Around me is some of the most glorious scenery on the planet, a continent the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined, more than 98% covered by ice, up to more than two miles thick, and melting.

My thoughts swirl to that question of how I — or we — fit, and the messages my penguins are sending.

Amazingly, no country owns Antarctica. All of it is set aside for peace, science, and environmental conservation under the 60-year-old Antarctic Treaty and its adjunct agreements. The Treaty is the Magna Carta of modern times, a testament to higher ground to which humans sometimes can aspire. Or, more culturally recent, you might say the Treaty is the living embodiment of John Lennon’s song Imagine — a sisterhood and brotherhood of humankind working together living in peace.

My penguins raise the stakes even more. As I’ve written in an earlier blog post, the Peninsula is warming faster than almost anywhere else on the planet, the type of monumental warming — a year-round increase of +3˚F. / 5˚C. — that, hopefully, won’t come our way. The response has been disparate — gentoo numbers soaring and their breeding range expanding, Adélie and chinstrap populations significantly declining.

Chinstrap penguin

We’re living a critical and historical moment, with a government now tuned to climate considerations in all it does. And therein lies my Earth Day and World Penguin Day wish — that all of us realize that we — like gentoos, like all living things on this planet — have the same four requirements for life and survival: Food to eat. A good home. An environment free of pandemics and disease. And more kids and grandkids.

Let’s resolve to get involved.

Let’s expand the numbers of people who understand what’s at stake.

Stand With Penguins! Take a Stand for Our Planet!

Ron Naveen is the founder and CEO of Oceanites, a nonprofit organization that, for more than two decades, has been driving science-based conservation under the Antarctic Treaty and promoting climate change awareness nationally and internationally.