The final chapter of The Moon by Whale Light, Diane Ackerman acquaints the reader with penguins. She begins her journey in San Diego, at the Penguin Encounter, or a quarantined area near there, where King penguin chicks of various ages are being reared. As a volunteer, she is able to get very close and interact with them. They have adopted the humans as their parents and as one passes by, the chicks vie for attention and food. Penguins have no land predators, and therefore no fear of humans. This makes them easy to study, weigh and measure, and apparently the king penguin chicks are the easiest of all.
In the wild the penguins would be in rookeries of about a hundred thousand, and parents and chicks would recognize one another only by their whistle. In the wild the penguin chicks would spend all their time perched on the feet of one of their parents. The ground is too cold for them to stand for long, and the chicks huddle against a warm brood patch on the parents belly, or when they are older, huddle together. This means that the captive penguins spend all their time wanting to be fed of cuddled.
Penguins are easy to anthropomorphize, as they walk upright and live in communities. They have a comical waddle that Ackerman compares to a human toddler's.
All Penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere, on the Antarctic continent, or Sub Antarctic islands. They also live along the coasts of South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One species even lives near the Equator, on the Galapagos Islands.
Penguins have changed very little in 40 million years. They have had the same basic structure for a millennium. Flightless and a little clumsy on land, they spend much of their time in the water and show true proficiency when swimming. They are streamlined, agile and fast. Scientists are only able to study them during their short courtship and breeding seasons, but the majority of their time is spent in the water.
Ackerman also journeys to the South Pole in order to make her penguin experience complete. She takes a cruise ship with over one hundred tourists and a fair number of scientists and naturalists who are hitching a ride. They travel to various islands and observe the rookeries of several different species of penguins: Magellanic, Gentoo, Chinstrap, King and Macaroni penguins. They also see a juvenile Emperor penguin but they breed too far south for the tour to see them. They are also lucky enough to see different bird species such as albatross, skua, various petrels and terns and several species of seal including the leopard seal, the greatest predator of the penguins.
Such diversity of life for a continent that is often characterized as lifeless. The largest year round species in the Antarctic is the wingless fly, measuring in at half an inch. Yet there is a great abundance of life in the summer. Fertile waters are caused by the constant sun, creating blooms of plantlife. These in turn feed krill miniscule shrimplike invertebrates) which are eaten by fish, squid and penguins themselves. Penguins catch each krill individually, needing to catch one every six seconds to get enough food. In turn this system supports other birds, seals and whales.
Ackerman describes the otherworldly beauty of Antarctica and its subtle palette. She also delves into the politics that are both protecting the continent and threatening its natural resources. At the close of one expressive passage she describes the scene from the ship.
Apricot light spills over the distant snow-tipped mountains. Chunky
wedges of peppermint-blue ice drifted past us. Behind us, the Zodiak
left a frothy white petticoat. And farther beyond, shapes arched out
of the water-penguins feeding, oblivious to what we call beauty.
Photo by John Bentham