The Emperor Penguin is the iconic penguin. In movies and documentaries, it is the defining image of a penguin and the symbol of Antarctica. It is “penguin- icity,” if you will.
But it is not easy to see. For Susan and me, finding an Emperor was an exercise in pure birding. Most people try to see Emperor Penguins on an expedition to a colony. It costs a lot, involves icebreakers and helicopters, and there’s no guarantee. We’ve spoken to a number of people who spent a small fortune and struck out.
I developed another strategy. Interviewing guides, I learned it’s possible to see Emperor Penguins as they sit on icebergs and drift through the Antarctic Sound, at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.
On one of our visits to the Antarctic Peninsula, we decided to try to find a drifting Emperor. It’s rare but possible.
Here’s what happens. In the Weddell Sea, just south of the Antarctic Sound, a colony of Emperor Penguins uses Snow Hill Island for breeding. When the ice breaks up in the Antarctic summer, juvenile penguins are sometimes “trapped” on a piece of ice as it drifts away, not yet ready to swim, apparently. Currents carry the ice and penguin into the Sound, where it drifts westward.
As our ship passed through the Antarctic Sound, we went to the bridge to watch.
Just before arriving at the Argentine research base Esperanza, while sorting through hundreds of Adélie Penguins, we spotted a larger, solitary penguin on an iceberg the size of a yacht. I ran through the diagnostic list: size, indistinct “ear patches” forming on its head. It was either a King or an Emperor. It had a slightly decurved bill and — yes! — black feet.
Photographs confirmed it was an Emperor Penguin.
As much as I loved the sighting, I still want to see a colony. I want to see those gorgeous adults and the incomparable chicks. But no apologies. We watched the juvenile Emperor drift out of sight behind us, lost in the ice, and we danced across the upper deck.