The penguins have now reached their winter resting grounds off the coast of Brazil,
and will not be travelling any further north. This is as far as Promises will
go this year. They will spend the next few weeks just resting and eating here,
before returning home to the colony to begin breeding again in October.
The penguins always stay well away from the land during the winter. They never
go ashore at all during their winter migration. They have everything they need
out at sea.
You might be wondering how they know how far away they are from the beach if
they never actually get close enough to see land. Well the answer is because
they can see the seabed every time they dive down to catch fish, and that tells
them how far away they are from the coast.
Magellanic penguins catch their fish at a depth of about 30 metres below the
surface. If you could imagine being on the 12th floor of a tall building and
looking down to the street below, that is about how far below the water they
dive to catch fish. It is a very long way beneath the water, but that is where
the fish that they catch live.
Forty metres is actually not that much for a penguin. King penguins dive up to
500m below the water, because they feed on bio-luminous Lantern Fish that live
so deep that they live in darkness. Bio-luminous means that they glow in the
dark, and Lantern Fish do that so that they can see each other and keep together
in shoals. However the light that they give out also allows King penguins to
see and catch them in the dark. Presumably the advantage of being visible to
each other outweighs the disadvantage of being seen by predators.
Near to the beach the water is far too shallow for Promises to feed. The water
gets deeper the further you are away from the beach, so you need to be quite
a long way away from the coast for the water to be deep enough for Promises to
catch fish. That is how penguins know how far away from the beach they are, even
when they can’t see the beach, and that is why they always stay so far away.
Whilst the penguins are away enjoying themselves it seems a good time to present
you with the results of last season’s research. Thanks to the funds generated
by our adoption program, we are able to monitor and protect penguins at three
different locations. Magellanic penguins only breed in Chile, Argentina and the
Falkland Islands, and we have study colonies established in all three of these
Last season the weather patterns across southern South America were seriously
affected by La Niña, a weather phenomenon which causes an increase in sea water
temperature throughout the region. This increase in temperature is not good for
penguins, because it interferes with the distribution of nutrients, which in
turn affects the whole food web.
Nutrients are basically tiny particles of food, such as bits of dead insects
and plants, that either fall into the water from the wind, or wash into the sea
from rivers. These nutrients, along with minerals essential for the growth of
algae, fall to the bottom and collect in the sediment on the seabed.
These sediments are the food source of small marine animals and plants, from
algae and plankton, to shrimps and krill. These nutrients and minerals are present
in large quantities in the seabed sediments, but they have to be stirred up into
the water to reach the marine animals and plants living near the water surface.
When sea temperatures are normal, this mixing occurs naturally around the coast
as a result of waves hitting the coast. However when the seawater temperature
increases, the surface water becomes warmer, and does not mix so easily with
colder water nearer to the seabed. This causes a lot of the important nutrients
and minerals to become trapped in the deeper water.
A domestic water heater is a good example of this phenomenon. When you take a
shower, the water keeps coming through hot, even though the hot water leaving
the hot water tank is being replaced with cold water. One would think that the
cold water entering to replace the hot water being used would mix, but it doesn’t.
Only when the hot water begins to run out does the shower start to run cold.
This is because even when the hot water cylinder is half full of hot water and
half full of cold, the hot water does not mix easily, allowing you to enjoy a
hot shower almost to the end.
If this is hard to follow, not to worry. What is important is that when the seawater
gets warmer, less nutrients reach the water surface, causing a reduction in the
amount of plankton and other small marine creatures. These plankton and small
marine creatures are food for the fish, so with less food available the fish
are forced to move away from their usual feeding grounds in search of food elsewhere.
Penguin colonies are located so as to be near to the fish populations during
the summer, when the penguins need lots of food for the chicks. However, during
the La Niña years, the fish are not where they should be, and the penguins have
to travel a lot further away from their nest each day in order to catch fish.
This means more time is spent travelling to and from the nest to catch fish,
the penguins have to work longer hours, and the chicks get less food.
Under such difficult conditions breeding success reduces considerably even in
healthy colonies. The main reason for lower breeding success is nest abandonment
during the egg incubation phase. Having laid the eggs, many penguins discover
that they have to travel too far to catch food, and abandon the nest. Penguins
can continue breeding up to about 30 years of age, so keeping healthy is more
important than loosing a year.
Despite the difficulties, most of our colonies did better than expected, and
most pairs that did not abandon the eggs managed to rear their chicks successfully.
If you take a look at the graph for Argentina (Argentina.gif) you will see that
at the extreme left the graph starts at 100%. This means that all of the eggs
laid are still surviving, which makes sense because they have only just been
laid so losses are low. Along the bottom of the graph is the date, and as time
goes by the proportion of eggs still surviving slowly drops as penguins abandon
A line around the 20th November shows the average hatching date for the colony,
but this is only an average, and many penguins lay up to several weeks later
than the average, so the graph continues to decline. When the eggs hatch, the
chicks are very delicate, and some do not survive the first few days. This is
part of nature and is not related to food availability. However once the chicks
reach about 10 days of age, they are then robust enough to avoid being stood
on by clumsy parents, and are able to push themselves under the parents for protection
to avoid getting cold. Their survival from then on is largely dependent on being
fed enough fish by the parents.
In our colony in Argentina, virtually all chicks that reached 10 to 14 days of
age went on to leave the nest successfully, and you can see this on the graph.
From early January the graph stops declining and becomes almost a straight line,
showing that the percentage surviving is no longer declining from early January
The penguins which did not give up during the egg incubation phase reaped the
rewards and managed to feed their chicks successfully, even though it meant a
lot of work each day travelling back and forth. The season ended with 53% of
all eggs laid producing a healthy chick that survived to leave the nest successfully
as a juvenile. That is a very good result for such a difficult year.
If you take a look at the graph for Chile (Chile.gif) you will see that the story
is much the same. Please note that the graph levels off further along for Chile
simply because most chicks leave the colony earlier in Chile than in Argentina,
making the time line of the graph shorter for the chick-rearing phase. Chick
survival was just as good in Chile as in Argentina, with 50% of all eggs laid
producing a healthy chick, which is another good result.
The graph for the Falkland Islands (Falklands.gif) is rather different. The colonies
in Argentina and Chile are protected from commercial fishing by the Argentine
and Chilean governments, with no-fishing zones around these colonies. The Falkland
Islands Government has refused to provide such protection for the penguins, and
the intense fishing industry around the Falklands depletes fish stocks so much
that it is difficult for penguins to find enough food for their chicks. This
has been the case since 1988, and the effects of La Niña last season were barely
noticeable in the Falklands, due to the fact that the Falklands fishing industry
does much more harm than La Niña.
The whole of the penguin conservation community world-wide has been petitioning
the Falkland Islands Government to establish no-fishing zones around penguin
colonies since the year 2000, but they continue to refuse. The only good news
is that our adopted penguins still fare well here, because we feed chicks that
are malnourished to ensure that they survive.
We have a video posted on YouTube showing how we feed the chicks. In this case
it is an orphaned chick, in the sense that it was so delayed in its growth due
to lack of food that the parents were forced to abandon it in late April because
of their biological need to moult before winter. Clearly it would have died without
our intervention. You can see this video at:
We have recently put two Virtual Reality videos on YouTube as well. For those
of you who have virtual reality goggles you can view the penguins in our colony
as though you are actually there amongst the penguins. These two videos can be
downloaded from YouTube at:
For those of you without virtual reality you can view or download the following
videos about our work with penguins:
Animal Planet documentary about our work with four species of penguins
Animal Planet documentary about our work with King penguins and Albatross
A documentary in German which includes our work with penguins
Unfortunately we can’t send videos by email because they are far too large for
email to handle.
I would like to add that none of what we do would be possible without your support.
Our work is entirely funded by our penguin adoption program, and this enables
us to help penguins even under pressure from commercial and political bodies
who would often prefer us to leave, so that they can abuse the environment in
secret. We work in remote areas, and only our presence shines light on what goes
I will write to you again in a few weeks, by which time Promises will be heading
back home to the nest.
Best wishes, Mike