Recently eight of us went for a day trip out to Auster rookery. I was pretty excited to get back out there as I had only been once before, when we first travelled out to scout out their location and the chicks were just about to hatch. Auster would be one of the larger rookeries out there, with a few thousand birds, and always makes for a great experience. It took almost three hours in the Hägglunds to get there from Mawson, and we parked up about 1km from the rookery to reduce any disturbance.
Even at that distance there were a couple of stray penguins, either making their way back to the ocean to feed or back to the rookery. Penguins will quite often come over to check us out and see what's going on, they seem almost as curious and fascinated as we are.
As we approached the actual rookery, we noticed they had split into two groups about 300 metres apart, so we walked into the space between them, making our way a little closer to the smaller of the two groups. As we set about grabbing our cameras and setting up, a few penguins started waddling over to come see us. As long as we stay quiet, don't move too quickly and stay kneeling down when possible, the penguins are not bothered by us at all, and it's quite cute how curious they are. Backpacks and cameras that we left on the ground were soon met with small groups gathering to investigate these unknown objects.
After a few minutes, I noticed penguins from the other group had snuck up behind us and were watching us, watch the other group. They often remind me of toddlers, without all the mess and destruction left in their wake.
I hung out there for quite a while, just enjoying the novelty and unique experience, before moving off to have a look at the other group. These penguins have been in roughly the same spot for the last 6 months, so the snow underneath has been stained a light greenish brown. I had heard stories about how bad these rookeries can smell towards the end of the season. It didn't seem quite that bad, but was definitely noticeable.
As most of the penguins were grouped together, hugging the edges of the icebergs sheltering the whole area, I found a spot in the middle of the clearing in a small patch of (almost) clear snow. After a few minutes a group of about 10 penguins made their way over and chilled out about 3 metres away from me. Luckily, they didn't seem at all worried by the GoPro I had on a stand, and were happy to sit about 1 foot away from it. The only tricky bit was when I went to leave. I couldn’t get my GoPro back as they were too close for me to approach. I had to back away and walk off for a few minutes, afterwhich the group slowly split up and either followed me, or made their way back to the main group, allowing me to circle back and collect my GoPro.
They seem to be very sociable and curious animals and since they don't have any land-based predators, are quite happy to investigate their visitors and will spend quite a while very close to us. In other trips I’ve been on we have had either lone, or groups of penguins spot us, hundreds of metres off in the distance and come over to us.
It is an unbelievable experience. Not only because very few people ever get to experience this, but to have completely wild animals not only allow us into such a sensitive and intimate part of their lives but actually engage with us in almost mutual fascination.
Guy Edgar (Diesoooooooo)