Expeditioners take part in some 'pientific' research

Taylor Take 2

Taylor, Take 2

The second Mawson Station Emperor Penguin Deep-Field Scientific Research and Exploration Expedition to Taylor Rookery (MSEPDFSREETR) for 2020 departed station on October 26th, to conduct the second annual census of the colony, in the name of scientific research. Our team consisted of Dr. Wayne Phillips (B.Plumb), Assoc. Prof Adam Schiefelbein (B.Elec), Prof Mark Savage (B.Field Training), Prof Darron Lehmann (B.MetTech), Dr. Shane Mann (Pest – PhD) and myself.

The journey across the sea ice to the Colbeck Archipelago proved to be a smooth trip – aided by relatively calm conditions, bright sunshine and boundless optimism that today wouldn’t be the day we would drop a Hägglunds through a crack. It wasn’t long into the journey however, that we began crossing paths with a steady but endless stream of Adélie penguins, returning to their rookery islands from the sea. In order to minimise our intrusion, we slowed to a crawl and kept our distance. It was like navigating our way through the world’s longest school zone. Watching an Adélie penguin do anything on land is the quickest way to 'peak happiness' – it’s as though their little legs were an evolutionary afterthought. Or maybe someone said ‘Tell you what, even though they are brilliant in water, we’ll make them breed on land. But give them stumpy appendages to walk across 100km of ice to get there’.

Under the steady guidance of our punctual trip leader, we only stopped for a couple of photo opportunities along the route, in order to reach Colbeck at a decent time. In hindsight this was a wise decision, as we arrived at the hut with only eight and half hours of daylight to spare. Nevertheless, the spectacular surrounds of the archipelago gave us all the sightseeing opportunities we could hope for, with plenty of nearby hikes opening up views all the way from Mt. Henderson to Taylor rookery itself (around 100km).

The following day we made the short drive west to the rookery, situated in a small rocky valley nestled against the face of the plateau. Taylor rookery has been the focus of an ongoing monitoring program since 1954, most recently under the direction of Dr. Barbara Wienecke. Since 1988, the penguins at Taylor have been photographed annually as part of this program, to keep track of their numbers. Taylor is ideally suited to this – being one of only two emperor penguin rookeries in the world located on land, not sea ice, it features a rocky topography that provides perfect vantage points to conduct the census.

Apart from the glorious weather, taking the census of the colony was pure joy due to our subjects. Thousands of emperor penguin chicks. Like most birds, emperor chicks look nothing like their parents. While adult emperor penguins are relatively sleek, regal and dignified, the chicks look more like monochromatic pears that have been rolled in pillow down, and then imbued with the sound effect of a squeaky toy. They are cute enough to make even the most ornithophobic person seriously consider breaking 39 years of Antarctic Treaty System regulations to steal one.

Our day concluded with a short walk to Proclamation Point, the site of a 1931 landing by Sir Douglas Mawson upon which he claimed the region for the British Empire. By mid-afternoon the temperature had reached an actually balmy -3 degrees, and half of our group was down to wearing only one layer. Suddenly aware that climate change was impacting our field trip, we began to wonder if our optimism the day before was misplaced, and we may yet see a Hägglunds drop through rapidly-thinning ice.

Alas, we made it back to Colbeck completely dry. But buoyed by the day’s successful mission, and a brilliant afternoon walk amongst the icebergs in the archipelago, two of the group committed to having Fray Bentos for dinner.

For those not familiar, a ‘Fray Bentos’ in AAD parlance is a tinned steak and kidney pie. It sits proudly at #1 on the list of Things That Should Never Have Been Invented – ahead of vuvuzelas and flathead screws. It’s the kind of food you would expect to survive on in a bunker after a nuclear apocalypse. The purveyor of the pie on this occasion, Darron ‘Live Fray or Die’ Lehmann, convinced his willing victim, Adam ‘Imminent Regret’ Schiefelbein to tackle one on his own. Asked midway through his meal what he thought of the pie, Adam replied ‘Yeah, it’s…good’, in the same way one would describe the artistic merit of a toddler’s drawing of a flower that looks more like a squid having a seizure. The high tomato-sauce-to-pie ratio however, told a different story.

The following morning, we packed up the Hägglunds and set off for home. The return journey was a lot slower however, owing to a heavily overcast day, resulting in poor surface definition. For much of the trip it was difficult to distinguish where the ground ended and the sky began. It felt like being inside a sensory deprivation chamber, populated with the occasional iceberg. But 7 hours later the second MSEPDFSREETR finally arrived back at Mawson - the Adélies were safe, the Hägglunds dry, and not a single emperor parent was suddenly missing a chick.

Hamish Stirling