By Dona Bertarelli
I want to thank all our partner schools, in France and Switzerland, and the 2,000 students who are following us. Whenever I can, I will be answering your many questions throughout this journey around the planet, a journey that we are taking together to discover the wonders of our world.
With all the crew of Spindrift 2, through our observations and our encounters, not only with marine life, but also with the islands and peninsulas that we pass, with the meteorological phenomena we experience, and with the birds and the stars that accompany us during our voyage, we will help you to live this adventure, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s famous book. We are calling our Spindrift for Schools series - Out of the Classroom.
They brought home a couple of Oscars for their marching and dancing, a Pulitzer Prize as the signature character of a popular Sunday comic strip, and multiple Stanley Cups as the face of the franchise for Pittsburgh’s National Hockey League team. For decades, they have served as the namesake of a venerable international publishing house and the public image for countless consumer products ranging from ice cream to beer. Scientists call these charming, tuxedo-clad creatures spheniscidae. But to the rest of the world, they are universally recognized and revered simply as penguins. However, despite their widespread appeal, many populations of this beloved bird are in trouble. Ironically, it is activity by their biggest fan base – humans -- that is most responsible.
Although flightless, penguins are remarkable birds that are thought to have ancestral roots to the albatross or loon that date back more than 100 million years. They are social creatures with most breeding in large colonies that can include up to several hundred thousand birds. Today, the 18 species of penguins that remain on Earth are found exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, although contrary to popular opinion, not all species of penguins live in the icy waters of Antarctica. Major populations of Humboldt and Magellanic penguins, for example, make their home in Argentina, Chile and Peru where the climate is more temperate.
In contrast to how they are often depicted, most penguins do not look alike. Rather, they vary in size and appearance, based largely on the climate and geography of their habitat. The largest is the Emperor, whose mating and breeding ritual in the dark and inhospitable winter of Antarctica was featured in the widely acclaimed documentary, March of the Penguins. This stately species weighs in at 75 pounds and stands nearly four feet tall. On the other end of the spectrum is the Little Blue penguin of Australia and New Zealand, aptly named for its bluish sheen, which averages only two pounds and is 16 inches high.
Little Blue penguin of Australia and New Zealand
While all penguins are black and white, each has its own distinctive markings, such as crests, bands or foot color, which in many cases only adds to its personality. For example, Royal, Rockhopper and Snares penguins are among those species that have long and vivid yellow head plumes that serve to signal they are ready to mate. The Chinstrap can easily be identified by the conspicuous black strap that extends under its chin from ear to ear. The feet of the African penguin are black, those of the Gentoo are yellow, while Macaroni populations sport bright pink feet?
Yet despite the differences in location and appearance, every species of penguin is an elite, aquatic athlete. Using their wings as flippers to move through the ocean, they are deep divers and can swim as fast as 17 miles per hour in order to escape predators, such as orcas or leopard seals. They also can travel long distances. For example, a breeding Magellanic penguin can swim 106 miles in a day and cover nearly 10,000 miles a year—the average distance a car is driven in the United States.
While the black back and white underside of the penguin give the bird its distinctive formal-wear appearance, this coloring, known as countershading, also camouflages it from predators and prey. When viewed from below, the penguin’s lightly colored belly will blend in with the clouds and sky. In contrast, when seen from above, its darker back becomes indistinguishable from the ocean bottom.
Similarly, the penguin’s toddling gait, while endearing, also serves a purpose. The side-to-side movement burns fewer calories than a straightforward stride, which is especially important for those populations that fast for months while mating or live in a frigid climate. In addition, when penguins “toboggan,” or playfully slide across the ice on their bellies as they did in the film Happy Feet, it allows them to cross long distances with a minimal exertion of energy.
However, despite their popular appeal and iconic stature, the majority of penguin species are in decline according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Even though most populations live in remote areas, human activity has had a big impact on their survival. Climate change, degradation of nesting grounds, oil spills*, marine pollution and the introduction of new predators have contributed significantly to the decline in most penguin populations. Another major culprit is industrial fishing. Fishing for krill, herring, squid and anchoveta when it overlaps with penguin foraging grounds, can deplete fish stocks that serve as a penguin’s prime food source, forcing them to swim ever longer distances to secure food for themselves and their chicks.
Much work has been done on land to protect penguins, but the ocean that they depend on for food is in decline. We must work to restore and protect important breeding and feeding grounds for penguins in coastal waters by creating a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica and off the coasts of Southern Hemisphere countries where penguins live. Given the charismatic bird’s successful track record at the box office and in the marketplace, we have high hopes that governments will take the necessary steps to safeguard this respected global ambassador for ocean protection.
*You wouldn't believe me if i tell you that Christophe, our bowman on Spindrift 2, while we were cruising in the Indian Ocean, had to spend time removing oil from our main hull.