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Bus2Antarctica: Close Encounters

Andrew Evans, we love you, but today you’re killing us with jealousy.

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines and the Antarctic Treaty forbid the touching of any wildlife–in fact, you need to stay a good 15 feet away from all animals at all times. As non-signatories to either agreement, the penguins are above the law–if they come to you, well, then you just let them. But you still can’t touch them.

A highlight of my Lindblad expedition was our visit to the thriving Gentoo penguin colony at Port Lockroy, an old British base. There were thousands of pairs of adults penguins and several thousand puffy baby penguins, hatched this summer season. Almost full grown, the babies were hungry and demanding–this is the time when their parents stop feeding them via regurgitation. The babies wait for their adult feathers to grow in, waiting and waiting until they finally figure out that they need to go in the water and catch their own food. It’s a tough reality check and some of the babies don’t like it one bit–they still want to be fed. During my visit I saw many babies chasing after the closest adult penguin they could find, then screaming and begging for food. The adults looked haggard and impatient with the youngsters, as if to say “Go find your own food!”
While the adults tend to steer clear of humans, the babies are quite curious and come right up to you. When I landed on Goudier island, two babies waddled right up to me and then bit me on the knees (OUCH!). My first Antarctic scar is a blood blister on my left knee where a curious baby Gentoo tried to see if I was food or not.

To get some eye-level pictures of the penguins, I sat right down on the ground, tinted pink from the abundant penguin guano. Slowly and cautiously, one baby penguin approached me, then finally jumped up in my lap, claiming me as his own territory. Later on another penguin came and pushed him off. The penguins were playing king of the mountain and I was the mountain.

Have you ever had a baby penguin sit in your lap? I didn’t think so. If anyone ever asks me what’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life–I will answer that it was having a penguin in my lap and NOT cuddling it. Having little penguin feet waddle on your thigh and that curious penguin beak peck at my coat was so cool. I almost died from the cuteness of it.

The women at the station reported that they had never seen a penguin sit in someone’s lap before, so I did feel just a little bit special. Maybe the penguin understood just how far I’d come.

Port Lockroy is an old British Antarctic Research station, built in 1944 (for the sake of the war) and then closed in 1962. In 1996, the base was renovated and opened as an historic site where visitors could stop during the summer. Four employees are stationed there from November to March to maintain the museum and the gift shop. They even have a post office and what I imagine is the southernmost public letterbox in the British Empire. Post cards are stamped “British Antarctic Territory” then sent to the Falkland Islands, then sent on to London, and then sent to their final destination. Mail from Antarctica takes six weeks.

I was a little afraid that visiting a man made site in Antarctica would feel cheap and touristy but on the contrary–I really enjoyed it. The museum is a well-kept memoir to early exploration in Antarctica, I was able to send lots of postcards to friends and family from Antarctica and best of all, I had a penguin in my lap.

Andrew Evans is tweeting about his travels aboard the National Geographic Explorer at @Bus2Antarctica. Want more? Follow the map of his journey, bookmark all of his blog posts, watch videos, and get the full story on the project here. Photos and video by Andrew Evans.

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