The Mawson winterers make their first visit to the Auster Emperor penguin rookery.

Antarctic Road Trip

One of the traditional highlights of a Mawson winter is the opportunity to visit the Auster Emperor penguin rookery. The Auster rookery is accessed via a 60-kilometre easterly sea-ice traverse from Mawson research station. The rookery has been home to some thousands of Emperors over the years as they progress their breeding cycle from early May, when the Emperors first return from open sea to begin breeding, to mid July, with the first cheeps from newly hatched chicks, through to December, when the air of the rookery is thick with fluffy gawky chicks ready to venture forth into the sea for their next phase of life.

Visiting Auster requires a new ‘sea ice highway’ to be mapped out each season, to take into account the changing positions of icebergs, locations of large ice cracks and the overall thickness of the sea ice. Once the route is established, it can take a bit of detective work to locate the colony, as it too moves position from year to year. It was the end of July this season, when the first expeditioner party located the colony the birds, just a couple of kilometres to the west of their 2018 position.

At this time of year in the rookery, there is a mix of newly hatched chicks and eggs still being incubated by the adult penguins. It is also the coldest time of the year so the adult birds are huddled closely together to keep warm while they carefully care for their egg or tiny offspring in their warm brood pouch. Emperors have special adaptations to be able to survive the freezing Antarctic conditions and are the only animal to breed in Antarctica during the winter.

The first human visitors of the season were quickly spotted by inquisitive non-breeding birds who slowly waddled over to inspect the strange coloured vehicles and their occupants. It was hard to decide who was watching who. Mawson Expeditioner and Auster Trip Leader Kim De Laive said, “Having been at Mawson in 2015, it was wonderful to revisit this remarkable place. Some of the newly hatched chicks from 2015 may have been the inquisitive juveniles that wandered over to say hello!”

After a couple of hours spent watching these amazing birds, the lucky expeditioners set off back to nearby Macey hut to warm up and then enjoy the finest field cuisine whipped up by Chef Kim. The group returned to station the following day in high spirits, eager to share their stories and photographs of a most memorable trip!

Dr Jan Wallace (Mawson Expedition Medical Officer 2019)