An icy world is in meltdown, as penguin population shifts signal trouble

Marine life off the Antarctic Peninsula needs protection as sea ice declines and fishing boats move in to take more krill.

A leopard seal drifts next to an iceberg off the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Air bubbles released from the melting ice stick to the lens of the underwater camera. For these seals, ice floes are a place to breed and molt, and they provide habitat for krill, an important prey.

An inflatable boat pulls up next to the snowy shore, and the gentoo penguins of Neko Harbor see people for the first time in almost a year.

Rather than a gaggle of tourists (absent because of the coronavirus pandemic), out climb Tom Hart, a penguin biologist from Oxford University, and several other scientists returning to the Antarctic Peninsula in January 2021. Honks and calls ripple through the colony of about 2,000 gentoos as one of the 2.5-foot-tall birds waddles through to find its nest. The penguins pay no attention to Hart as he makes straight for the time-lapse trail camera perched on a tripod and wedged in place with rocks. He retrieves the memory card from inside the camera’s waterproof housing.

The camera has been taking pictures of the penguins every hour, from dawn till dusk, since they settled down at the nesting colony four months earlier to lay their eggs and rear their chicks. It’s one of nearly a hundred cameras dotted across the 830-mile-long, 43-mile-wide peninsula that have been monitoring breeding colonies of three penguin species during the past decade.

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