Come with Mawson expeditioners to witness one of the most spectacular and unique experiences on the planet!We provide comprehensive coverage of an expedition to the Auster emperor penguin colony including unique perspective from each expeditioner and photos that will impress. Wayne also celebrates a birthday!

The adventure begins

Hi everyone,

It’s that time of year when the sea ice is thick enough for us to travel on safely and the male emperor penguins are coming to the end of their epic 115 days of incubating the precious egg on their feet. 
With this in mind, it’s also that time of year when Mawson expeditioners eagerly await a suitable weather window so we can pack all our kit, crack out our zoom lens cameras, and head out to the Auster emperor penguin colony, one of the main reasons many people choose to winter here at Mawson, the only Australia station where we can visit the emperors.

With our trusty Met Team keeping us up to speed on the weather front, everything was shaping up for our departure on Sunday the 8th of July. On the said morning, well fed from our delicious Saturday night dinner, our group of six congregated in the dining room at 8am, only to sit around drinking coffee while we wondered why we met so early. The two Hägglunds were fully packed and ready the day before and, with no intention of leaving station until 10am due to the lack of light, we could have slept in a little longer.

Final checks made and chocolate stocks checked it was all systems go for the first trip this season to Macey Hut, some 50km east of station, with the Auster colony approximately another 10kms. 
Travel on sea ice is quite safe but you have to be constantly on the lookout, checking for signs of thin ice and tide cracks. With the ice thickness measuring greater than 800mm and increasing as the winter progresses the biggest potential obstacle are tide cracks. These form from islands and icebergs as the edges part with tidal movement. Thankfully we came across only two notable tide cracks, and both of these were less than 500mm wide and had refrozen, so were safe for the Hägglunds to cross. Being the first trip out, it was our job to follow the set way pointed route from last year, ascertaining if the route was still safe to use and that no icebergs had floated in last summer and blocked the way. In good weather there is little to worry about and one might get complacent and wonder why routes are so important, but if the weather turns and you’re stuck out in poor light, poor visibility or poor ground definition then the GPS way pointed route suddenly pays its way, and in the unlikely event of getting caught in a white out, it’s a godsend.

We had perfect weather all the way and quite a good track which made for an enjoyable three hour drive out with the plateau and ice cliffs following us to our right (south) and icebergs dotted along the way. Some of the icebergs were mighty big: quite something to see. I never tire of sea ice travel and looking at icebergs.

On arrival at Macey Hut, we dug out the door to the hut, parked the Hägglunds up and refuelled them ready to head out early tomorrow to find the penguins. Being the first trip out since last summer, we checked that all the gear was in working order, looked over the hut for any damage from winter winds, and settled ourselves in for the evening, which for me as always involves a delicious cup of hot orange Tang, the true Antarctic experience indeed.


Search for the penguins

We drove towards the Auster emperor penguin colony on Monday 9th July about 10am in the twilight. It was the first trip to Auster for the 2012 Mawson team and we knew that we were the vanguard of many more visits to the colony. We headed towards the GPS waypoint where the penguins bred in 2011. Emperor penguins breed on sea ice and, although the colony is always in the vicinity of the huge icebergs at Auster which give stability to the ice, the actual location varies year to year. We arrived at the location where the penguins bred last year and there were no birds to be seen. The multi-year sea ice was strewn with rafted ice and it appeared as if large slabs had shattered off one of the icebergs. We soon got in amongst numerous large bergs and there was still no sight of the penguins.

We stopped for photography and I walked away from the noise of the Hägglunds to see if I could hear or see any signs of the penguins, but nothing. With only a few hours of light at this time of the year, I must admit I started to wonder whether we would find the colony. Pete asked where I thought we should go. I had visited the colony in 1994 and 1997 and my memories from those visits told me that we had to get into an open area and not be amongst the bergs. However, others who visited Auster in different years said that in their year the birds were amongst the big bergs. We could see a large open area in front of us and there it was, the first sign: large stained areas on the sea-ice. Obviously indicating where the penguins had recently been. Then Anders spotted a non breeding penguin and we knew that we were close.We followed the stained areas of ice and there in the distance was the huddle of males, each male incubating an egg.

We parked the Hägglunds many hundreds of metres from the colony and out of sight of the penguins but despite these precautions the penguins knew we were present as the non breeding birds (we call them mavericks) starting peeling off from the huddle and walking and tobogganing towards us. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was starting to rise and even though we knew many areas would not catch the sun’s light, the light available was clear. My companions clearly knew that they were seeing something special as they were in no hurry to move towards the breeding penguins. They seemed to be happy to just be where they were and photograph the mavericks. The mavericks were inquisitive about our presence and moved closer towards us. I took a quick shot of my companions and they reminded me of photographic paparazzi.

After some time we moved cautiously towards the breeding penguins. We remained a couple of hundred metres from the huddle. Pete got a shot of a male with an egg on top of its feet. The mavericks came up close to us and we could see the world’s biggest penguin with its large body and relatively short in comparison beak and flippers. The emperor’s feet are like crampons and they are able to toboggan very quickly across the smooth sea-ice. I think we all sensed that we were privileged to be in the presence of these magnificent penguins and we clearly did not want to disturb the males in any way. 

After spending time at the colony we drove a short distance to a very large opaque bottle-green iceberg which we had spotted as we were searching for the penguins. This so called jade iceberg is formed by seawater attaching to the under surface of an ice shelf and then, when a section of the ice shelf (iceberg) detaches, some of the berg below the surface is frozen seawater. Then when the berg topples over, this surface is exposed above the water. The action of light on the marine derived organic matter in the opaque ice gives a green appearance. However, when a thin shard is chipped off, it is clear, but without all the usual air bubbles seen in fresh water icebergs. You may have seen the same effect when looking at the edge of a pane of glass


Pete’s impressions of Auster

The day we arrived back on station, I sent an email to my good mate Pete in Yeppoon. Here’s an excerpt from that email which I think captures the moment perfectly.

“The penguins were unreal, it’s hard to put into words, just incredible. I never thought it would be as good as it was, thousands in one big huddle, perfect weather and we even had two of them show us their eggs. Also, even though way over the opposite side to us so some distance away, I got to see a small section of the huddle lift their heads and I could see the steam/heat rise from where it was trapped in under them as they are packed in that tight that they have a big warm sort of air bubble trapped, that was mind blowing. I've seen it on David Attenborough documentaries but never thought I’d ever witness it myself.

The next day we popped out before coming home, the weather was turning and it was blowing snow on the poor things, this is where it just got a whole lot better though. They were all huddled up together with the outside ones covered in a light dusting of snow, their backs out to the weather, and coming towards us hugging the outside was a procession of penguins, perhaps 15, they’d peeled off from the coldest part and were moving along and then snuggling back into the huddle again one by one. In the process they were exposing some others to the weather, then they’d do the same and in the end they all get a turn after many hours, absolutely amazing to see that, I can’t describe it, I still can’t believe we witnessed this.

I should be used to it by now, but it still takes me by surprise every time. Antarctica has yet again turned it on and given me an extraordinary experience, and in the process I've got to see something less than 20 Australians and probably less than 100 people in the whole world ever get to see in any one year, amazing, as Bob said, this is one of the wonders of the world, and I certainly can’t disagree.”


Robert’s impressions of Auster

The trip to Auster was one of many firsts for me. First sea ice trip, first time in an ‘apple', first time jollying with Vicki, Pete and Chris and first time seeing emperor penguins.

My first sea ice trip was both exciting and educational.

Exciting: we were there out on the sea looking at the stunning scenery and amazing colours. The winter light made the icebergs take on pastel colours and the blue sky was awash with colours such as mauves, pinks, purples, orange and yellow.

Educational: Learning about tide cracks, icebergs, soft snow on sea-ice and how the Hägglunds performed. Learning more about preparation for sea ice travel.

First time in an ‘apple': the ‘apple’ is a round dome-like shelter made of fibreglass and it sleeps two. This particular ‘apple’ had moved since last year and it was resting partly on a boulder. As a result, it leaned on an angle of about 10 degrees. Bob, the station leader, took the bed on the higher side of the leaning ‘apple'. This meant he was fighting a loosing battle all night to stay in bed. It’s below freezing cold in the ‘apple’ and if you don’t take your drinking bottle into your sleeping bag with you, the water will be solid before morning.

First trip with Vicki, Pete and Chris: eating Fray Bentos pies, bacon and cheese toasties, say no more. Along with Bob and Anders whom I have had trips with before, they were excellent company.

First time seeing emperor penguins: their name describes them very well. They have a noble air about them. Their curiosity brought some of them close to us, enabling us to see and photograph them with ease.

It was a privilege to see the males in the huddle, holding their eggs on their feet.


Vicki’s impressions of Auster

While as we hear ad infinitum how each station is different with the scenery, snow, huts, wildlife, and quality of auroras, something we particularly spend a winter at Mawson to see, is the emperor penguin huddle.

It is an amazing sight, with thousands of penguins packed in, eggs on feet, shuffling around the outside of the huddle to move away from the breeze (a bit prettier than sheep lined up in a paddock with backs to the wind). Add some blowing snow and rising steam and it is a very atmospheric and special scene that is hard to convey with just a photos.

While there are over 7000 male penguins in the huddle, it’s not until you zoom in with the camera lens that you begin to gain a sense of how many penguins are present. The black mass resolving into individual patches of black, white and yellow with the occasional glimpse of an egg.

The occasion has given rise to some moans on station about the ‘poor males’ doing all the ‘hard work’ but as I say, the females had to lay the egg in the first place!


Bob’s impressions of Auster

At the colony, I was interested in the ice stained areas and I wanted to count the number of frozen lost eggs. The distant huddle intrigued me but what initially reminded me of earlier visits was the beautiful soft pastel colours of the environment that I was in. Memories flooded back to me from my visits in the 1994 and 1997. The icebergs were a dull pastel blue (the pastel blue with a light green tinge) with what reminded me of a matte finish in a photo. The morning sky, particularly the last 30% towards the horizon, was pink. The penguin huddle was a dark, deep blue to black in the distance. The sea ice and Antarctic plateau were white. The surfaces on the icebergs which caught the light glowed and the sky that evening, was golden.

It was only about −25C and there was little breeze at the colony. Despite quite mild conditions for the location and the time of the year, there was a huge contrast between us and the penguins. We had arrived in heated vehicles, we had many layers of clothes on, we were wearing two pairs of gloves, head gear, goggles and some of us were using hand warmers. The penguins, who had not eaten for over 100 days, were incubating an egg and waiting patiently for the females to return with their stomachs full of food in order to feed their chicks which would hatch in a few days time. We could only admire and photograph the penguins for a few hours before we started to get cold and we then retreated to our heated vehicle whilst the penguins were totally in tune with a very hostile environment at the limits of endurance.

In some ways, it was difficult for me to take it all in with the grandeur of the huge icebergs and life on the edge with the males incubating a very precious egg. In situations like this I realise that humans are irrelevant in the scheme of things and that life is so precious and transient.

The next day, Pete suggested we visit the colony a second time. The temperature was still about −25C but the wind had picked up to 30+ knots with drifting snow. The backs of the penguins were covered in a dusting of snow and then I was amazed at what I saw. The huddle was actually moving with a line of penguins streaming along the side of the huddle and positioning themselves within it. The individual penguins had become units within a much larger organism. 

In 1994, I was travelling in a Hägglunds to Auster with Barbara and Kieran. Barbara sat in the back seat knitting. What she was making was nearly finished by the time we arrived at Macey Island. In the hut, she did some finishing touches and then attached the pom pom and said “Bob, this is for you”. Eighteen years later I was looking forward to taking the beanie back to Auster in order to show Barbara how grateful I was for the present, made entirely (apart from the finishing touches) on sea ice in 3 hours.


Chris’ impressions of Auster

Upon being asked to go out to Macey/Auster, my first thought was “I have just got back from Taylor Rookery and I think I am all ‘penguined’ out” but it didn’t take long to change my mind. After all, a huddle of penguins is one of the highlights of the year and something that so few people ever get to see.

After packing my survival bag with extra tins of Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies (if Scott had these he would have been first to the pole) we set off for a bumpy ride to Auster.

We headed off to the rookery after a warm and cosy evening at Macey Hut, following the route last year’s expeditoners took only to find the penguins weren’t there. We then drove round for over an hour looking for them and in the process, driving near huge icebergs that reminded me of the grand canyon only in ice and equally as spectacular.

Eventually we stumbled across the penguins not too far away and all packed tightly in a huddle, a sight that will remain with me for years. The only thing that was missing was Sir David Attenborough giving a running commentary.

All that was left to do was to go back to the hut and munch down on Fray Benos pies, washed down with copious amounts of hot tea, and bounce all the way back to Mawson after a very special trip.


Anders’ impressions of Auster

Being my first visit to Antarctica, I seem to find that I am a little more amazed at what I see and experience than some of the seasoned campaigners around, however the visit to Auster was something that I think everyone was amazed by. The first thing that struck me on the journey out (a crisp winter’s day with little wind or cloud and a beautiful, low sun) was the light. I never get tired of the ever-changing sunrises and sunsets and the multitude colours that change from fiery reds to oranges, pastel pinks, purples and blues as the sun changes its angles. I find it difficult to describe the colours or accurately portray what I see with my eyes through the lens, however I’m sure that it’s not just the colours but my emotions that I have trouble portraying. At this time of year the sunrise/set lasts for hours (the sun stays low in the sky for hours and paints the landscape with magical colours) and the white and blue of an iceberg makes a perfect medium to reflect and highlight this. There is a majestic quality to the ‘bergs around Auster. Looking from the hut at Macey towards the colony, it appears to be an almost impassable jumble which the mind struggles with the scale of. As you approach the ‘bergs, only then do you start to get a sense for the scale, with some being kilometres across and at least a hundred meters above the surface of the sea ice, which in itself I still can’t grasp as 90 percent of an iceberg is below the surface of the water. As we traveled through the magic that was around us I smiled to myself, unsure whether anyone else noticed that I was mesmerised.

The real mission was to find the Auster colony, roughly 10km over the sea ice and through the ‘bergs from the hut at Macey. Not having seen the penguins before, I found it hard to think like one and work out where I would be, so our starting point was the location of the colony last year. Of course the ‘bergs had moved since then and some of the waypoints had large obstructions preventing our direct travel. Eventually, after an hour of navigating the vertical walled canyons, we came out in a clearing and spotted a large brown stain on the sea-ice (guano), followed by a lone emperor penguin.

We parked out of sight and everyone began readying their camera equipment, of course the astute mavericks (male penguins who had lost their egg or failed to breed) came to see what the noise and all the fuss was about. They approached to within about five meters of us and called a couple of times, tilting their heads back and making a unique sound while a little steam from their breath was projected up into the air. After the parties had inspected each other for a few minutes, the penguins decided to head north and we headed south towards the colony. There were a few abandoned eggs laying on the ground on the way to the colony (we could only count about 10), all with little blizz tails both up and downwind. The eggs are a little larger than a clenched fist, with green speckles on them. It’s beautiful and sad at the same time to see the eggs, and reminds you of how close to the limits of survival that these birds must be.

Thousands of penguins all huddled together to preserve their warmth. As it was a calm day, the huddle was not as tightly packed as it would be on the following day. A few birds in the group would occasionally raise their heads above the rest to see who the foreigners were but didn’t seem to be worried by our presence and a couple of interested Mavericks came over to see what the fuss was about. We just stood watching as a couple of the braver birds would come over to see us, either waddling or falling to their belly and using legs to push along the ground (which seemed rather efficient). To stand up again after using this mode of transport, the penguin would push its beak into the snow and push. As we stood, watching the mavericks come and go, some of the males with eggs on the outside of the huddle would lift the fold of skin protecting the egg for a quick inspection, showing us the balancing act that was taking place. The heat inside the huddle must be quite high as at one stage, there was a commotion amongst the birds on the far side and a plume of steam emanated from the area as well as a visible heat haze above.

The following day, the weather was not nearly as nice, with a similar temperature. However, with wind and a little blowing snow, it was a different “kettle of trousers” (thanks Chris). The huddle was quite a bit tighter with most of the birds keeping their heads down and keeping packed in. There was still quite a bit of attention from a couple of groups of mavericks and, interesting to see that as soon as they came to visit us to share a common curiosity, they would assemble themselves into a mini-huddle of six or so birds. The main group was more dynamic, with the upwind birds constantly filing out and around the huddle to the downwind side to warm up again.

Seeing this made me realise that these penguins are living and breeding on the limits of survival. They are there, outside in temperatures down to at least −35, withstanding 100 knot blizzards, undergoing nearly four months of starvation and as well as all of this, minding an egg and relying on the timing and navigation of their mate to return on time with food for the chick to survive when it hatches. I thought about this as we walked back to our heated vehicles wearing our warm down jackets and began our drive back to our heated station for a warm meal.


Wayne’s birthday

We celebrated Wayne’s birthday during the week. Bron presented Wayne with a beautifully decorated carrot cake, which was his choice for his birthday. A fair portion disappeared on the night and after about four days, it was all gone. So apart from Wayne, there must have many been others who thought that the cake was pretty special.