May 2017 News from South America

Dear PenguinPromises

The penguins have now left the colony on their winter migration. The last few
months have been hard for Promises, laying eggs, feeding hungry chicks, and finally
changing feathers. Now the penguins have a few weeks to rest and relax. I attach
a photo showing just how many penguins gather together for the winter migration.
This photo was taken from a boat, so my apologies that it is not as sharp as
most of our photos.

Penguins are social animals and they like to keep together in groups. They make
nests and raise the chicks together in large colonies, and they also migrate
together in large groups. However partners do not remain together during the
migration.

It is not that the partners deliberately go their own way during the migration,
it is simply not possible to keep track of individual penguins out at sea. The
open ocean is hardly ever flat calm. There are virtually always constant waves.
Floating on the water surface with the head barely above the water, Promises
can only see as far as the nearest wave in any direction, which is rarely more
than 5 or 10 metres. Underwater the visibility is not much better either.

Even if a pair tried to remain together, the first time one of them went chasing
after a fish they would loose contact with their partner. Finding them again
amongst hundreds of other penguins swimming around that all look virtually the
same would be impossible. That is why pairs do not remain together during the
migration, but they do meet up again back at the nest in October. The nest is
their home, and that is where they return to meet up again with their partner
when it is time to lay eggs.

Here in southern South America we are not too far from the South Pole, so the
further south we go the colder it gets. Northwards is the only direction for
Promises to travel in search of better weather and longer hours of sunshine.
Since Promises cannot fly like other birds, that restricts the winter migration
to places that can be reached by swimming within a reasonable time frame. Here
in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the only sunny destination that Promises can
reach is Brazil, so that is where all our penguins go during winter.

Even so, it is a very long way to swim to Brazil, about 4,000 kilometres. It
will take Promises several weeks to arrive. However the penguins are in no rush,
and the migration is a bit like an ocean cruise for Promises. Each day the penguins
spend a few hours leisurely swimming north, taking time to relax and eat lots
of fish. They spend lots of time sleeping too, just bobbing along on the waves.

Their migration is a role model for life in general. It is all about enjoying
the journey, and not worrying too much about the exact destination, which is
always unpredictable.

The penguins don’t actually have a fixed destination in mind. Each day instinct
guides them north, but only as far as they feel like swimming each day, and gradually
the weather gets a little bit warmer and the days get a little bit longer. The
sunny weather and longer hours of daylight make it easier for the penguins to
catch food. Penguins need to see the fish in order to catch them, and it requires
good sunlight to see the fish clearly several metres below the water.

Sometimes the penguins hardly reach Brazil at all before it is time for them
to turn around and head back home to begin egg-laying. During other years they
travel way beyond Rio de Janeiro. Every year is different.

The food is also different during the migration. Back home the penguins mostly
eat the same type of fish every day (Sprattus fuegensis), but during the winter
migration they get to eat other kinds of fish. Penguins can eat almost any kind
of fish, but the fish have to be small enough to swallow whole. Penguins don’t
have teeth, so they cannot chew their food, which is why they have to swallow
the fish in one piece. That limits the size of fish which Promises can eat.

It sounds very tiring having to swim such a long distance, but for Promises it
is very leisurely. Penguins have neutral buoyancy, so they just float on the
water like little boats when they are resting. They only need to flap their flippers
to move forward. Watching them playing in the water makes me think of somebody
lying face-down on a sunbed with their arms dangling in the water to paddle –
all very relaxing. The penguins only need to exert themselves to catch the occasional
fish.

There is no doubt that penguins are always happiest in the water. Swimming is
far easier for penguins than walking, and during the winter migration they never
leave the water at all. They could if they wanted to. There are lots of remote
beaches and islands along the way where the penguins could come ashore if they
wanted to, but they simply choose not to. Penguins only come out of the water
when they are forced to do so, for example to lay eggs, raise the chicks, and
to change their feathers.

I will write to you again in a few weeks, by which time Promises will be floating
around in the water a few kilometres offshore from some Brazilian beach.

Best wishes,  Mike

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