Visiting Penguin Island | Tessa Van Walsum

My name is Tessa, I am a current (part-time) PhD student within the Department of Life Sciences. I am based in the Centre for Research in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour and work with Dr Lewis Halsey and Dr Andrea Perna. I feel like I have the best PhD topic of all – king penguins!

Where did I go?

In order to visit my king penguins I have to travel by train to Paris, then I fly to La Reunion (small island near Madagascar), and from there I board a large ship (le Marion duFresne) after which we set sail for 5 very long and bumpy days, and finally I fly the last bit to Penguin Island by helicopter. The entire endeavour takes up to a week and many sea sick days. However, for the first sight (and a bit of a fishy smell) of a few thousand penguins, the travel is more than worth it.

Penguin Island is officially called Crozet. It’s a French sub-Antarctic island (sub-Antarctic = because it’s not quite as cold as the Antarctic) in the middle of the Southern Ocean. The island sits there because of some fantastical volcanic explosions many years ago. It’s situated between South Africa and Antarctica, and is mainly visited by French scientists, military, and tourists. Anyone could potentially sign up for a trip to Crozet, however not everyone could afford it’s steep price. Thankfully, my time there was financed by the University of Strasbourg. They, along with a few other French universities, have a long standing relationship with the ‘Terres Australes Antarctiques Francaises’ (TAAF), also known as the French Antarctic territories.

Because of this relationship, the University of Strasbourg has been studying the bird colonies present on this island for over 30 years. Penguin Island is secluded, windy, rainy (it rains more often here than in the UK!), and you can experience all 4 seasons in one day. But again, the penguins on the island are very much worth the hassle.

Arriving onto Penguin Island!

On top of the hill you can see the base, and on the right side you can make out a small white building – this is where the research is undertaken and where you can find ~40,000 king penguins.

King Penguin 101

The king penguin is approximately 90 – 100 cm tall, weighs anywhere around 10 – 20 kg (depending on whether they have recently fed or not), and lives in the sub-Antarctic region. The king penguin uses penguin Island as their ‘central foraging area’. This means that they travel from this island to ‘nearby’ places to fish. King penguins are among few penguin species that travel enormous distances at sea to reach their foraging areas. As such, when the king penguins are breeding, they may disappear from the colony for weeks at end, and then return to land with a full belly of fish. Like the emperor penguins, the king penguin parents take turns to take care of the egg and chick. So it is essential that the king penguin does not stay away from the colony for too long periods of time, or risk starving its partner that’s left with the egg.

Very young king penguin chick sleeping on the parent’s feet.

Awkward teenage phase f the king penguin chick…

How did I set up the research?

For my PhD I set out the task of studying behaviour of the king penguin on land, in particular the penguin’s sleeping behaviour. While this study sounds like a real snoozefest, I wanted to study this because I was interested in the lack of the sleeping penguin’s response while they rest in a loud colony. If you have seen any documentary on king penguins, or large penguin colonies, you will notice the sheer amount of noise they make. This noise of penguin calls, squabbles, and squeals is continuous and quite loud. And on one occasion I was observing a sleeping penguin while another came from the sea. This newly arrived penguin stopped next my sleeping penguin and then raised its head for an immense loud call (to announce its arrival and search for a mate). This newcomer’s call reached up to 100 dB (for reference, a human exposed to sounds over 80 dB for a prolonged period of time may go deaf)! Yet the sleeping penguin did not even as much ruffle a single feather, it was most definitely out for the count. This was interesting, but what made this even more interesting is that when I made a small noise with my tripod next to another sleeping penguin, this penguin looked up and immediately ran away. My thought was; ‘The penguins must be listening to noises in the colony, even when they sleep!’.

Some animals, such as bottlenose dolphins, show uni-hemispheric sleep. This means that they sleep with one side of the brain at a time. This also means that they have one side of the brain ‘awake’ (or at least show brain waves identical to wakefulness) thus potentially scanning the area for threats and predators. Previous studies have been trying to elucidate the reasons for animals to sleep. Some argue that there is no need for sleep, others say that animals must sleep to stay alive but that they are at risk of predation while they sleep.   When king penguins sleep on land they put their head under their flipper, but in a very awkward and uncomfortable looking way. The penguin does this a number of hours per day, often in relative short bursts. Some studies have found that temperature even influences the amount of time the penguin rests.

King penguin sleeping – and me jolly in the background! They can be very deep sleepers.

For the experiment I set up a small wireless speaker and camera and make sure to measure the distance between the speaker and the ear of the penguin. I made sure to be well away of the event, as it happened, to make sure that the penguin didn’t respond to my presence instead of the sound. I then played a random sound from my phone. Each sound lasts 15 seconds, and increases in volume (2dB) per second. This mimics a sound coming closer towards the penguin, and could thus evoke a response in them. As a comparison, I played these sounds to awake penguins as well. In this way I could see whether awake, or asleep, the penguins responded differently (faster, slower, and even if they moved away or not).

As always, the results are not as clear cut as expected. We find that some sounds just are more threatening to penguins than others, regardless of their specific frequencies or even if it’s a specific predator of the penguin or not! And most interestingly, it’s the sleeping penguins that respond quicker and move away more often than the awake penguins.

Set up with speaker, on a small tripod, with a camera attached. The white and yellowish bits are penguin poop. The beach is covered in it.

What inspired me to get into this field?

I have always dreamt of becoming a Marine Biologist and study penguins, so remembering that exact moment of inspiration is difficult. I vaguely remember watching a documentary that featured a number of Marine Biologists, and potentially within that same document I first heard of Antarctica. And it fascinated me that despite the horrible weather conditions down there, there was still life on the continent! You would expect the animals to live there to be the hardiest, and potentially creepiest creatures, much like some deep sea creatures.  However, there they are – emperor penguins! I have yet to meet a real life emperor penguin, but I am determined to get there one day.

What is my advice for other students wishing to get into this field?

My advice would be to find something you are truly passionate about. This particular field is difficult to get into (like any other where there are cute animals involved), but there are places (or I wouldn’t have found one)! And for field work you may have to be willing to sacrifice some things, being far away from home for months at end can be daunting! Days are long, the weather is cold, penguin beaks are sharp (!), and there is little to no connection with the outside world. After a few months in the field, you will miss your family and friends, and you will start to miss the simple things; like wandering down a street (or going somewhere without having to tell anyone), going to a pub, and even getting groceries!

It sounds like I want to deter people from going, but this is far from the truth! Penguins are fantastic animals to work with and they do many interesting things. You can do behavioural studies, like I have done, or physiology studies, or even tracking studies! There are many ways to get into this field, I suggest you find out what you enjoy doing most and stick with it – even when it gets hard!

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