One of the major drawcards of wintering at Australia’s Mawson research station is its proximity to Antarctic wildlife, in particular the emperor penguin colonies at the Auster and Taylor rookeries.
Part of the job of expeditioners on station is to take part in the annual penguin census – photographing and observing the birds and their chicks at each colony and relaying that information back to AAD scientists.
As Matt Williams’ 15-month posting as Mawson station leader draws to a close, he reflects on his special connection with one emperor penguin in particular, named ‘Smudge’.
Matt describes emperor penguins as “incredible animals – in size and custom – they’re the only animal to roost and breed over the harsh Antarctic winter and deserve both awe and respect.”
“They are perfectly evolved for life in the ocean and on the sea ice in the harshest, coldest places on earth.”
He says the Auster rookery is “the most beautiful of all. It is impressive in beauty, location and in sheer size of the colony.”
“It is always founded on sea ice, amidst an amphitheatre of gigantic ice bergs that tower above in all directions. As the bergs are always grounded in different locations each year and the sea ice is different each year, the colony bases itself somewhere different. How they find it, how they choose the perfect spot, is a wonderful mystery.”
The journey to Auster
“Picture yourself driving out to sea over a frozen ocean with kilometres of ocean below, in a brightly coloured tank-like vehicle, over snow drifts and ice cracks stretching for kilometres. All the while surrounded by what look like massive islands of fresh water ice bergs that calved somewhere off gigantic glaciers,” says Matt.
“And the variety of shapes is matched by the variety in colour – white and blue, zebra striped with black, blue with blood red streaks, and most beautifully of all, deep green jade. The journey in itself is jaw dropping.”
When he and his team get to Auster, Matt says they observe strict guidelines on keeping a distance from wildlife and park well away, marking the spot on the GPS.
One day, as soon as Matt stepped out of his vehicle, he noticed “a number of tiny little black dots hurriedly waddling towards me. It was as if they were as excited to see me as I was to see them.”
He recalls “the first to arrive was a large penguin – larger than the others and clean, healthy confident – but clumsily quick to approach.”
A chance encounter
“He waddled at first, then flopped hard onto his belly, kicked off with his hind feet as if swimming and slid towards me quickly. I lagged behind to watch.”
“He got within a metre, stood up, leveraging his big body with his beak from the ice, and almost as if in the same move, slowly unfolded his head, pointed it to the sky and let off the strangest sound I’ve heard. He just stood there and moved his head from side to side slowly, and called to me again.”
Matt says he can’t explain what happened next.
“I talked back (as if a penguin can understand you Matt, I thought)…hi buddy.”
“As soon as I spoke, he vocalised again. I repeated ‘hi buddy’ and again he returned the chat.”
Matt, meet Smudge
I noticed the tiniest little smudge on his toe, on this otherwise pristine creature. I said ‘you want to come for a walk Smudge?’ He responded with a squawk.”
After that, Matt says as he kept walking, Smudge kept waddling and when he couldn’t keep up, he slid on his belly.
When Matt spoke to him again, he stood back up and called again, and continued to follow, walking, sliding and calling for about 15 minutes.
Later, Matt noticed Smudge “drop to his belly again and head straight towards me, calling out loudly the whole time.”
“When he got to me, the others seemed to move away – he was much larger, but I’m not sure if that’s why. He walked around me a few times – seated on the ice, my head was almost the same height as his.”
“I said ‘hi Smudge, did you miss me?’ and he lifted his head and called out again. It was literally every time I spoke, he’d respond – very unlike the others who were quiet around me and vocalised only to one another.”
“I decided Smudge was actually interesting enough for me and stay put for a few hours, just hanging with my penguin buddy. I lay down, I sat, I ate, I drank water – and all the time he just contentedly stood right in front of me chatting to me every time I’d say something.”
Until next time
When he left Auster rookery and returned to Mawson, Matt says the weather closed in, and he wondered if Smudge was staying warm in the penguin huddle or, if he’d ever see him again.
He needn’t have worried, for when he returned two weeks later, “I heard a familiar call and a large penguin accelerating his waddle towards us.”
Matt says he thought that it couldn’t be the same penguin.
“I lagged behind again as the team walked straight to the rookery. They were excited because the chicks were starting to hatch and you could hear little chirps everywhere – like the sound of baby chickens I remember from my farm – almost exactly the same adorable sound,” says Matt.
“But I loitered, intrigued to see if another penguin was being this brave or if it was Smudge. It got within a couple metres, stood up using its beak against the ice to lift its large body, unfolded its head up to the sky and called out.”
Matt says it was Smudge.
“And Smudge followed me again, walking, sliding and chatting back.”
Matt doesn’t know what it meant, but when “he saw me sit, he walked so fast towards me it looked like a penguin jogging, a cute little acceleration of that chubby little body coming straight for me. And there we stayed again.”
When Matt walked back – Smudge followed.
“I thought to myself, you are just like my doggo back home. And off I went again after a slow walk with Smudge in hot pursuit.”
“And as we drove off, little Smudge tried to keep up for a while before breaking off and heading to the area he started from when I arrived, near the zebra berg.”
“Until next time, Smudge.”
Matt saw Smudge once more – he says he grew a little sad – “I knew he’d have to go soon back to the sea, and I may not get a chance to come back.”
But he managed it one more time and on that last trip, he says, Smudge was gone.
“I pictured him at sea, chasing krill and fattening up. So I spent the hour wandering around incredible Auster, taking in the sights of curious new chicks and parents moving them along. I saw babies that never survived and skuas lingering around waiting for weak baby emperors to stray too far from their parents,” says Matt.
“Life and death were all around. It was still wonderful and magical – like a real life Attenborough documentary.”
But there was one more surprise in store. When he turned to leave, Matt saw a small black dot, moving quickly and “being very vocal.”
The dot became clear and close – it was Smudge!
“I knew this was the last time I’d see him, so I sat for five minutes and photographed him as he twisted, posed, and squawked.”
“With a final ‘see you later Smudge!’ and a squawk in response, I hopped in the vehicle and drove away.”
Matt wonders if Smudge will befriend the next group of expeditioners. He says he’ll never forget his time with that one emperor penguin among many at Auster rookery.