Pete and our adopted penguins have now left to spend the winter in warmer waters,and the colony is completely deserted. It is a strange feeling walking around the colony when it is quiet and abandoned. It is a mixture of sadness that they have gone, and satisfaction that our work has been successfully carried out for another year. It always feels to me like being left behind in a stadium after all the players and spectators have gone home, with only the memories of the day’s play remaining.
Now that the penguins have left, and our work load has dropped, we have been involved in a series of meetings with government officials to draw up management plans for the colonies. This is extremely important for the long-term protection of the penguins, since working in state owned wildlife reserves, we have only an advisory role in their protection, and it is important to have binding protective measures drawn up to ensure a long-term commitment to the protection of the penguins.
In Europe and North America, for many years management plans have been normal practice for virtually every wildlife reserve. But here in South America wildlife protection is very far behind. This does not mean there is a lack of will locally, on the contrary, the Chilean and Argentine governments have been fully supportive of protection measures for the penguins, and it is thanks to this protection that our colonies in these countries are so healthy.
The problem is simply a lack of money and lack of infrastructure for training and employing specialists to over-see the good intentions. At our colonies in Chile and Argentina, all of which are designated nature reserves, our work is
the only work being carried out to protect these penguins on-site. Government protection comes in the form of legislation to tackle problems which our monitoring work uncovers, but if we were not raising independent funds through our adoption programmer, in order to monitor and protect the penguins, such problems would never come to light.
Such an example is Contramaestra Island, which is close to Magdalena Island in Chile. Magdalena Island is a designated nature reserve entitled “Monumento de los Pinguinos” because of its importance as home to over 60,000 pairs of penguins. But nearby Contramaestra Island is not part of the reserve, because the Chilean government thought it had nothing worth protecting on it. However in November 2002 we conducted a survey of the island, not expecting to find much of interest from the information provided locally. Instead we found a colony of 25,000 pairs of penguins. With Magdalena Island at maximum capacity, the penguins have enlarged the colony by using nearby Contramaestra Island, without anybody knowing until we did our survey.
With this new information, the government is now drawing up plans to enlarge the designated nature reserve of ‘Los Pinguinos’ to include Contramaestra Island. This is a crucial step, because during the last few years Magdalena Island has suffered two major droughts, causing loose soil to be driven by strong winds across the island, burying large areas of nests. If this climate change continues, the penguins on Magdalena could be under threat, but luckily Contramaestra is much more humid and does not suffer from drought, making it an alternative nesting site for the penguins in the future. None of this would be known without our independent studies and protection work underpinning the government’s desire to protect the penguins by legislation.
The management plans being drawn up will strengthen this partnership between scientific investigation and legislative protection, giving it a more formal status, but will not alter our financial independence from government at all. Our ability to remain economically and politically independent of government and commercial interests is absolutely vital in maintaining our scientific credibility and impartiality. It is my belief that the fencing protecting the chicken house should not be erected by the fox.
The penguins left the colony at just the right moment. The weather here has turned very cold over the last two weeks, with heavy snow falls throughout the region. Down here in the southern tip of South America, we are now in our winter.
The nearer to the poles one lives, the greater the difference in hours of daylight between winter and summer. Near to the equator, there is only a small difference between winter and summer, whilst at the poles, there is continual daylight during mid summer, and continuous night during mid winter.
Down here at the tip of southern South America, in mid summer it is daylight at about 4 o’clock in the morning, and it doesn’t get dark until about 11 o’clock at night. Even between the hours of 11pm and 4am it never gets really dark, there is always some light to see by, rather like a night with a full moon. These very long hours of daylight are good for the penguins, enabling them to catch more food for the chicks, which is why they do their chick-rearing here at this time of year. Penguins need to see the fish to catch them, so longer hours of daylight means more hours during which they can go fishing to feed the chicks.
But now we are in our winter, and the days are very short. It gets dark about 4pm, and does not get light again until about 10am. Even during the day it never really gets sunny. It is always gloomy and grey. This poor quality light makes it difficult for penguins to hunt silvery-grey fish 20 or 30 metres below the water surface, even during the day, which is the main reason penguins migrate towards the equator in winter.
I attach a map showing the location of our study colonies, and to show just how far the penguins must swim to reach Brazil during their winter migration. If somebody in France suggested walking to Egypt for their holidays, people would hardly believe them, but these little penguins travel further than that every year, just to take advantage of the extra daylight.
Magellanic penguins have no real predators as adults, living in areas where the main predators of penguins are not found. The principal predators of penguins, such as Orcas and Leopard seals, feed around Antarctica and sub-Antarctic islands, where Magellanic penguins do not visit, so Magellanic penguins generally live to about 25 years of age, provided that they survive the perils of being a chick. But spending from 4am to 11pm catching food for chicks really wears out the adult penguins, and the winter migration to feeding grounds in Brazil is very important for the penguins, to help them recover physically from efforts of chick-rearing.
When I write again in a few weeks time, Pete will be floating around in the open ocean in the Brazilian sunshine, so that seems a good time for me to give you the results of last season’s scientific studies, prior to the beginning of the
new season of egg-laying and chick-rearing, which begins again in just a few weeks.