The scars cover my arms, my hands. The most impressive are on the soft flesh between my thumb and forefinger, two-inch-long seams, angry and pink. I’d use them to get sympathy, but El, my wife, looks worse. Although we are similarly marked, her skin is darker, her crosshatchings and scores more vivid. When people see us, they ask what on earth happened. What can we say? The penguins of Punta Tombo are vicious.
Punta Tombo is a desert peninsula on the southern coast of the Patagonia region of Argentina, home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. Every year, close to half a million come to breed along the miles of rugged coastline.
El and I had gone at the behest of Dee Boersma, a professor at the University of Washington. Her suggestion was at once casual and absurd: How would you two like to spend the next six months in a leaky trailer, getting bitten and beaten 14 hours a day without a day off, ever? Dee’s college courses were notable for their strong moral underpinnings. “This is values science,” she said. “You can’t listen to everything I’m about to tell you and not feel anything.” Dee could get away with this approach because she had studied the colony at Punta Tombo for 25 years and had been called the Jane Goodall of penguins.
“A lot of chicks are going to die,” I said to El, for she is a champion of cute and vulnerable creatures.
“That’s OK,” she said. “I know how it works.”
“They might die horribly,” I persisted. “Right in front of you. And you couldn’t do a thing about it.”
I peeped pitifully and fluttered my hands the way a starving chick might.
It was a late September afternoon when we fishtailed down the jarring, unpaved road leading to Punta Tombo. Spread before us were bushes that guarded their improbable leaves with tremendous spines, worn reddish hills and plateaus, and the point itself, Tombo, a gnarled finger of arid earth that curled into the Atlantic Ocean, which was a blue so rich and cool it seemed somehow out of place.
At the field house, El and I staggered out of the truck. We badly needed a walk, so we hunched up the trail to the colony. We had gone only a short distance when we saw our first penguin. It was under a bush, resting on its belly. It peered up at us quizzically and twisted its head back and forth, which is how a penguin tells you it doesn’t like you.
The Magellanic penguin is medium-sized, as penguins go. Males are larger than females, with squarer heads and thicker bills. This first penguin was one of the few hanging around at the time; most were still at sea. In the following weeks, more trickled in, until nearly every burrow and bush had a penguin peering out from it. Away from their nests, they would gather by the hundreds and stare at us whenever we happened past, twisting their heads en masse.
Magellanic penguins are also known as jackass penguins—the male’s ecstatic display sounds a lot like a donkey’s bray. A physically exacting spectacle, it starts when the male stands in front of his nest and feels a need to assert his claim. He begins with a series of preliminary huffs—huw . . . huw . . . huw—before extending to his full height. His flippers flung wide, he throws his head back, bill agape, breast and belly heaving like a bellows: Huw-huw-huw-huw-huuAAAAAAAAAH. Huw-huw-huw. Having so concluded, he waits to see if any male dare answer his challenge. If one does, he repeats his display. If the rival is especially impudent, the two will clack their bills rapidly against each other, a behavior known as bill dueling.
El and I were soon well with the bray because, in addition to using it as a territorial claim, penguins bray when they are scared, and they often were when we were around. Laden with the tools of data collection, we stumped from study nest to study nest. Our daily tasks required us to reach in with a steel shepherd’s crook and hook the penguins by their stubby little legs. One of us would draw one out, grab it by the neck, and then sit on it while the other measured its bill length and depth, flipper, and foot. In the parlance of Punta Tombo, this was “penguin wrangling.”
If we had been eager to see in their waddling miens amusing caricatures of human self-regard, then we also had to reconcile other, less savory behaviors. Among them: They had no qualms about using the desiccated remains of their dead offspring as nesting material. Also, they were breathtakingly indifferent to the welfare of their neighbors. Their subjectivity consisted of two states, what we called “Me” and “Not Me.” When we had to fetch a penguin and it vigorously objected, that penguin was said to be deeply in the Me. The penguin not two feet away that couldn’t be bothered to open its eyes? Not Me.
When we accosted the penguins, muzzling bills and gripping necks, they all glared at us with the purest expressions of fear and hatred that I’ve ever seen.
All save one.
Early in the previous year’s breeding season, a young Magellanic penguin was forcibly evicted from his nest by a stronger male. This newly homeless penguin moved in under the Penguin Project’s truck, a Ford F-150 Turbo. His choice made a certain amount of sense. The truck provided good cover. Its undercarriage was nice and snug. To a penguin’s discerning eye, it would make a fine nest, except for its occasional tendency to drive away.
It wasn’t long before this penguin took to visiting the field house. He wasn’t at all shy around humans, and so was given not just a flipper band, but also a name: Turbo.
Turbo stayed under the truck for the rest of that year, but the next season he moved on. During El’s and my time at Punta Tombo, he had a new nest in the center of a large molle bush, surrounded by coils of discarded barbed wire. He would call on us nightly, rapping on the field house door with his bill until we opened it. Then he would toddle in, and someone would stick out an arm or a foot for him to flipper-pat. (Flipper-patting is a precursor to copulation.) Once he had spent his affections, he would doze under the table and keep a bleary eye on us while we went about our business. After some interval, he would decide he’d had enough of our company and stand by the door until we let him out. But he never simply left. He liked someone to walk him to his nest, and he would wait patiently on the doorstep until we obliged him.
After a day spent battling penguins, Turbo was a welcome balm. Every other Magellanic penguin might snap at us, but Turbo ran out to greet us whenever we passed his bush. The odd thing was that he seemed otherwise secure in his penguin-ness. He would stand outside his nest and bray from time to time, and even fight if it came to that. But whereas other penguins dealt in Me and Not Me, Turbo was somehow, indubitably, an I.
For our part, we indulged in wild fits of anthropomorphism. All the things we wanted to do with Magellanic penguins but didn’t dare, we did with him: We cooed over him, stroked the firm pelt of his feathers, and even carried him short distances before he nibbled our arms remonstratively.
By late November, after weeks of monitoring eggs, the first cracks started to appear, and soon we would visit a nest and find beneath the adult’s belly the wet gray rag of a newly hatched chick. Exhausted, adorable, each one weighed little more than a tennis ball. Their eyes weren’t yet opened, their necks could barely support the weight of their heads, but the colony soon rang with the claver of their begging. Besotted, we tossed aside what little was left of our objectivity and named with abandon: Jetpack and Jambalaya in nest 413J, Emerson and Emile in 102E.
Sadly, the act of naming did not confer the permanence we thought it might. One chick, Popcorn, was gone the next time we went to measure it. “Oops,” we chortled. “No more chicks named after snacks then. Don’t want to tempt the fates.”
Then Jambalaya disappeared. Then a fox ate Emile.
Coming to Punta Tombo, we had understood, conceptually, that there is a reason seabirds live an unusually long time and breed a lot, but we were ill-prepared for the sheer scale of loss. Penguin chicks were dispatched as quickly as they hatched. There were recurring themes, certainly, starvation chief among them, but they were also torn to pieces by armadillos, dropped from great heights by gulls, stomped on by their parents, trampled more generally, impaled on branches, crushed during fights, neglected, baked in the sun, drowned in puddles of mocking shallowness, smothered when their burrows caved in, made hypothermic by rare but fierce thunderstorms, or, in most cases, simply vanished without a trace.
Daily we continued to make the rounds, reaching into study nests and plucking out those penguin chicks that had survived the night. We measured them; we put small tags through the webbing of their feet. Throughout, they wailed in terror and shat on our pants. “I hate science,” El said after one particularly grisly incident in which a male eviscerated his chick right before our eyes.
Chickless, girded in his armor of the I, Turbo ran to us at the end of each day’s grim turn about the colony. Relieved as I was to see him, I started to question the quality of my attachment. I worried that in pouring all my feeling onto him, I was absolving myself of having to care about our subjects’ plight. What ought to have been a broad if more diffuse empathy was focused instead on a single, batty penguin.
What science could not relieve, time did, to some degree. The chicks that lived doubled and tripled in size, until, by late January, they weighed close to six pounds. Midnight blue feathers began to peep out from under stubborn tufts of down; flippers stiffened with bone. Larger chicks took to standing in front of their nests, flapping to strengthen their chest muscles. They would start slowly, tentatively, speeding up until their flippers hummed in a blur. Then, inevitably, a slight hitch—a pebble, an ill-timed gust of wind—and they would totter, stumble, fall over.
It was time for them to fledge. What exactly compels a chick to leave isn’t known, and the chicks themselves seemed unsure as they tottered down to the shore. Small figures before an enormous beckoning sea, they looked both exhilarated and terrified by their own audacity. Then they stepped forward and, flippers sculling madly, rushed at the waves. Tossed up in the swell beyond the surf, they stayed on the surface for only a moment, exuberantly buoyant, before they dove down and disappeared. They were swimming north, to Brazil, where they would spend the austral winter. Most wouldn’t survive to return.
Turbo also left around this time to put on weight for the annual molt. This is an energetically expensive and, I’m told, painful procedure. The Magellanic penguins forage for more than two weeks, and when they return they are bound to land for almost three weeks before they, too, can migrate north. They stand in various states of engorged dishevelment, losing weight as they replace their feathers, until the air swirls with the snow of discarded plumage. When they are finished, they are half-starved and their belly skin sags. But they are beautiful, their backs a soft charcoal against a bright white.
I waited for Turbo. This was easy enough at first, but as the days passed and he didn’t return, I grew more and more anxious. Broadly so. Around the world, penguins of all species face an uncertain future. More than half are either vulnerable or endangered, due to what is becoming the standard litany of ills. Coastal development encroaches on their breeding sites. Oil spills foul feathers and habitat. Outbreaks of disease cull large numbers of adults and chicks. Ever-growing fishing fleets clear the seas energetically. Climate change alters patterns of ocean productivity, driving shifts in the distribution of those prey species that are left. And so on.
Set against the thousands of penguins I walked past every day at Punta Tombo, these statistics were sometimes dulled into abstraction. But then I would think of Turbo. I imagined him going to sea and navigating through a labyrinth of fishnets, swimming hundreds of miles and finding nothing to eat, and then coming home and on his way to his nest getting run over by a tourist bus.
My vigil grew desperate. I checked the nest daily, hourly sometimes. Once I saw a Magellanic penguin poking around the nest, but when I called Turbo’s name, the interloper peered at me blankly and twisted his head back and forth. Not Me.
By our last day, I was bereft of hope. We would leave very early the next morning. Small chance that Turbo would come back before then. On our final night, I went to his nest to see if he was back, the action rote. But when I peeked in, Turbo erupted from his bush, braying wildly. He was enormously fat, and still wet from the sea. A piece of red algae was stuck to his band.
Later, El told me it sounded like someone had run over a dog, so demented were my howls of joy.
We went through the flipper-patting routine and then I walked him back. He scooted past the branches and ducked under the barbed wire, levering his bulk with his bill before slipping away into the dark. I could hear him clucking, which is what penguins do when they are home. I stood there for a moment, listening, feeling relieved and, in a way, justified, though for what exactly I couldn’t say. Then it occurred to me that Turbo had brayed as he would have had he been greeting his mate after a long absence. I wasn’t sure what this said about either him or me, or us, so I decided not to think about it too much. For once.
Eric Wagner is a science and nature writer with a background in English literature and conservation biology. Excerpted from Orion (July/August 2011), a bimonthly magazine devoted to creating a stronger bond between people and nature.