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How Antarctica Inspired My Colourful Penguin Art
My collection of penguin paintings are the result of an intrepid journey to the Antarctic. I spent five weeks navigating from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula on a Russian ice-breaker. We were battered by force 12 winds, 10 metre high waves and sub-zero temperatures, but, thankfully, not being the sort of person who suffers from seasickness, these extreme conditions made the trip all the more exciting.
Antarctica is an incredible continent. Before we joined the trip, my wife and I had spent a week camping in the Falkland Islands, just ourselves and the penguins. Although the penguins there were by no means scarce, or shy, their black and white plumage is still a challenge to photograph and I used this first week to practice getting the exposure right before setting off on the epic journey from the tip of South America to the icy continent.
As I boarded our ship, a Russian vessel named the Vavilov, I was nervous. I had such high hopes for this trip, I wondered if the experience would live up to my expectations. We had a few days to pass at sea before I would find out. These were filled with interesting talks and lectures about what to expect by the experts on board.
As we cruised we were accompanied by a procession of birds, riding off the slipstream. The distance these birds cover is extraordinary. We saw arctic terns from the North Pole and royal albatross all the way from Australia and New Zealand, foraging for their chicks over 5,000 miles from the nest site. But black-browed albatross and wandering albatross, which has an 11 ft wingspan – the longest of any bird in the world – were our main companions
For three days the sea was pink with krill, a type of shrimp and the staple diet of whales, seals, penguins, petrels and so much sea life. This shrimp is so plentiful that put together it has the heaviest biomass of any single species in the world. A fact I could only comprehend after having seen shrimp swarm the waters for myself.
After a few more days at sea South Georgia loomed on the horizon. The island was spectacular. Black rock mountains towered up into the clouds. These peaks were interspersed with starkly contrasting white and turquoise glaciers that tumbled into the icy sea. As we drew nearer, we could hear the faint moans and groans of fur seals echoing across the waves. It felt and looked so pre-historic that I wouldn’t have been surprised if pterodactyls had flown down from the clifftops. The ship dropped anchor and I was first in the queue to get into one of the zodiacs heading for the shoreline.
We were taken to Salisbury Plain, host to the largest king penguin colony on South Georgia with 200,000 birds. It was mid-summer in Antarctica – although temperatures were still below freezing – and we were going to be there for four hours. What we saw when we landed was mind-blowing. I didn’t know which way to turn. There was just so much going on. There were elephant seals hauled up on the beach to moult, fur seals giving birth to pups and a mass of king penguins as far as the eye could see.
My cameras began working overtime. I had made this journey just to see king penguins on this sort of scale and now that I was finally here I found myself at a loss for words. Right in front of me, a procession of adult king penguins walking down to the sea from the main colony grouped together in splendid formation. They seemed almost to be posing for a painting.
Yet it was a young, dull-coloured penguin that caught my eye. Unlike his smart adult friends, he was covered from tip to toe in an ugly shaggy coat of brown down feathers. But what he lacked in looks he made up for in bravado. Young penguins can’t swim until they are fully moulted into their waterproof feathers – but this particularly feisty youth obviously hadn’t read any of the bird books and was following the others straight to the water’s edge. He strutted straight up to the crashing waves and dived in the without the slightest hesitation, jumping the breakers in quick succession.
But he soon got into trouble. His shaggy brown down became waterlogged and he had to struggle back to shore with his pride in tatters. He made it back with the help of a large wave and dragged himself up and out of the water. Standing glumly on the beach, he looked totally dejected. I watched him as he looked longingly after his older peers as they marched smartly past him and into the freezing sea.
I was so engrossed in this unusual behaviour that I hadn’t noticed the fog rolling in. We could no longer see our ship. As we climbed back aboard the zodiacs it sounded its foghorn so we could find it again. A day passed as we looked at whaling stations and then the following morning we anchored at St Andrew’s Bay – the second largest king penguin colony on South Georgia it is home to some 100,000 birds.
Before the landing, we were briefed that we were not allowed to go closer than three metres to any penguin or seal, but this is easier said than done. As the zodiacs beached on the shore we were faced with a wall of blubber: elephant seals. Also, and by far the worst obstacle, were territorial male fur seals which would charge at you like angry Rottweilers. As with so much wildlife, the golden rule remained true: stand your ground and the animal will stop, run and it will chase you.
Nevertheless, things got a little alarming when a seal charged at my wife. She bravely stood her ground as the seal opened its mouth, revealing razor-sharp teeth, and leant over to ‘mockingly’ bite my wife’s calf. After the seal had safely moved away, we laughed, but I didn’t find it quite so amusing when it inevitably happened to me. Even a killer whale will flinch away from seal gnashers, so in retrospect, it wasn’t all that funny!
However, the penguins didn’t seem daunted. I watched as one plucky penguin tried to barge its way through a crowd of elephant seals, pushing its way through the wall of blubber right into the path of a very large and grumpy elephant seal. The seal roared a warning at the penguin, but instead of retreating to safety, the penguin retaliated; slapping the huge seal right across the face with its flipper!
Having made it through the seal gauntlet, I headed up to the penguin colony. Penguins are unlike any wildlife I have ever photographed, or painted. They are actually really interested in humans and if you sit down you soon attract a crowd of onlookers. I laid down on my belly photographing a pair as they performed their incredible courtship ritual, a sort of slow dance which unfolds over several days.
The couple struck a pose in perfect synchronisation, before slowly morphing into the next pose and then the next. It is incredible to watch and after the slow-motion dance, they set off on a grand promenade following each other with a curiously exaggerated walk. It all looked so romantic. Yet I was surprised to see that the end of this courtship was far less so. The male got the female in a headlock with his beak, stood on her foot, and pushed her forcibly to the ground before mating her – I was quite aghast!
Up until then, I had been transfixed, but thenI looked down at the soil I was lying on to see that on closer inspection it was a composition of penguin excrement, feathers, down and body parts of dead penguins. I was just about to brush myself down when I felt a hard tapping on my boot. I turned onto my side to see a young penguin standing over me in clear contradiction to all the rules. It started calling at me, flapping its flippers and spinning around as if it was auditioning for Happy Feet.
The trip came to an end all too quickly. But I remain attached to this very special place and hope to return there one day.
Paintings Inspired by Antarctica
My trip to the Antarctic inspired a new collection of colourful paintings. Scroll down to see them all.
I travelled to South Georgia with Peregrine Adventures.Author: Robert E Fuller