Wildlife in Antarctica

The following entry is the fourth installment of several reports that Birmingham Audubon officer and board member Maggie Amsler sent to us during her most recent research trip to Palmer Station, Antarctica. Charles D. Amsler, Ph.D., and Margaret O. Amsler, M.S. are veteran Antarctic researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). For more about their work in the Antarctic, visit https://www.uab.edu/newsarchive/37618-antarctic-island-named-for-uab-researchers-charles-d-amsler-and-margaret-o-amsler and http://www.uab.edu/antarctica/blog/maggie/148-palmer-station-the-nickel-tour-at-no-charge.

March 23, 2016

Warm greetings from the Deep South,

Since writing earlier in the month life at Palmer Station has been wild in several ways. Busy wild with diving and lab work, leaving little time for much else other than eating (necessary) and sleeping (not so necessary). Such life of science wilds are most enjoyable and privileged so I cannot complain!

One of the many welcome wilds at Palmer is wildlife. Even as Antarctica slides into winter ‘hibernation’ Mother Nature’s native residents continue to amuse, amaze, entertain, and awe us. Common to areas where animals congregate like seal pupping grounds, bird rookeries, and even Palmer Station are amusing little white birds called sheathbills pictured here:

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Though the scientific name means Snow White, these birds do not exactly behave like future princesses. They feed on carrion in seal rookeries and pirate food away from chicks in penguin colonies. And in the local human colony (i.e. Palmer Station) frequent the barbeque grill for a free handout of which they are out of luck. At least they have a royal posture no doubt due to an apparent passion for one-legged yoga poses.

Another feathered resident often annoys. Skuas are a primitive seagull and have a rather nasty demeanor. They are very territorialistic and will aggressively defend their nest, chick or sometimes just whatever they feel like at the moment. Such was the case one day when we were out in the zodiac and we must have invaded one’s favorite swimming hole.

Skua by Maggie Amsler. Palmer Station, Antarctica. 2016

Ryan and I were putting on the final pieces of dive gear when a skua began dive bombing us – its chocolate brown wings with white swoosh swooping just over our heads. Ryan and I were seated but Bill was standing at the tiller and took the brunt of the bird’s harassment. Skuas strike at the tallest offending object. Oddly, the feisty bird landed on the bow of our zodiac for an up close and personal inspection. Apparently now bored or satisfied, our mellowed visitor flew off and the dive outing proceeded as planned. Until we hit the water…..

About five minutes into our dive, I spied a flash of white in the water. Hmm I pondered, I don’t see anything now back to looking for a particular alga to collect I chided. I found the first set of three different samples we needed to collect and like a nurse to a surgeon, Ryan handed me the necessary items at the necessary time to collect each of them. While finishing the third sample, just behind Ryan I see not one but two flashes of white, along with black and orange at close range. A pair of Gentoo penguins!!

Gentoo Penguin. Maggie Amsler at Palmer Station, Antarctica. 2016.

Ryan did not understand my hand language but in moments understood as the penguins zoomed by right in front of us. The penguins stayed with us much of our dive. While we slowly, awkwardly swam lumbering in our bulky drysuits, they put on a grand show- pirouetting, barrel rolling, high speed turning inverted like a fighter jet. Amazing underwater flyers! I could not help but think how reversed the locomotion tables were. On land humans upright and bipedal move with ease. Penguins on land, bipedal and upright are the stuff of hilarious videos. If penguins have social media, drysuited divers swimming would garner record numbers of “likes”. When not entertaining us, they wowed tenders Bill and Emily by porpoising very close to the zodiac. Too wild.

And a not so welcome wild of frequent occurrence is weather. We have been station-based many a day due to high winds preventing boating. One morning we went out with modest winds and a gray, dreary sky. The dive was productive and while motoring back to station, suddenly the wind dropped to whisper, the gray sky raised to hallelujah blue and even the reclusive sun appeared. We decided once the dive gear and samples were dealt with we would head back out to zodiac into the sunshine and chase icebergs and whatever other wilds we may encounter.

Bill, Chuck, Ryan and I admired the many blue hued icebergs that have paraded in and out of Palmer’s local waters.

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Also, on parade in the area that day were humpback whales and we were treated to views of a few that came close to our zodiac. We could hear the deep, reverberating ‘harunk’ sound made upon reaching the surface and opening their blowhole to breathe. Absolutely awesome! Not only an audio display but indelible visuals of their huge, gleaming black wide body and characteristic dorsal fin hump as in the following digital visual. Note the lumpy appearance of the hump on the left in this image. Curious. Such a marvelous, wild encounter.

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My time at Palmer Station is guaranteed to get even wilder as I have only two weeks left! It seems I have only just arrived and now need to start counting hours to complete a big science and packing must-do list. I find solace in realizing that the next two years I will have much longer stays in this glorious land of ice. I will have even less time now for diversions like sharing Antarctica with you so look for probably just one more issue of 2016 Deep South News.
In the meantime, wishing you a wonderful, wild and colorful spring days!

I’ll end my wild little tale with a wild whale of a tail!

Cheers, Maggie Amsler
Department of Biology
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Currently in residence at Palmer Station, Antarctica