Every season Australian Antarctic Division expeditioners are sent to our three remote stations on the continent. From the moment they see an Adélie penguin, every one of these people will be struck with an unanswerable question, which they will ponder for the rest of their lives: what are they thinking?
At the beginning of the summer season Adélies are breeding. They form nests from a careful selection of small stones. Not all stones are created equal in the penguin’s eye and many will be picked up only to be dropped after a short time for no apparent reason. Why? We do not know.
During breeding season it is not uncommon to see one or more Adélies walking, jumping or sliding on their belly through the landscape far from any colony, sometimes many kilometres inland. Is it because the Adélie has seen something interesting far off into the distance? Could it be that the smell and noise of the colony is too much? Is their internal compass being effected by the iron in the rocks? Or even more controversial, are they much smarter than they appear and do they plan to take over the station?
To see an Adélie penguin colony after the young have hatched is complete chaos. Skuas fly overhead while a mass of action moves on the ground. There is a strong smell and a lot of noise as what appears to be 50% of the population is chasing one another over the rocks.
During times when they are moulting (losing their old feathers) they become less curious and more agitated. They turn up in unusual locations all around station such as on site services pipework, inexplicably on top of sea containers or in front of the balloon building trying to stop weather observations. They have even been known to chase an expeditioner from time to time.
Ultimately I doubt that we will ever know the truth of what they are up to and what thoughts are lurking behind their dark white rimmed eyes. But as all expeditioners will agree, we hope they come in peace.
Ben Harrison, Plumber and Amateur penguin observer