From the National Geographic Explorer in Antarctica

Jan 09, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer

Leucistic penguin, Aitcho Islands

Leucistic Penguin, Aitcho Islands

Finishing our transit of the Drake Passage was a delight. A few mild rollers stirred the ship just enough to let us know that we were afloat. This waterway, of fearsome reputation, couldn’t have been kinder!

By nine in the morning, land was in view. Our first sight of the South Shetlands was not very inviting. As is often the case, the islands were obscured by fog, with an unpleasant drizzly snowfall. Rocks off the islands jutted dangerously from the sea, and the islands themselves had a dreary aspect. Yet, after what seemed a long time at sea, we looked hungrily at the land, and were eager to step ashore. And soon we did, at one of the Aitcho Islands.

Color tells us much about life in Antarctica. At first glance the island seemed crazily verdant, as if some chunk of the Serengeti had been unexpectedly dropped into an icy world. The island is covered in Antarctic “old growth” – moss and lichens several millimeters high! But most of us had eyes only for penguins. Gentoos strutted about the beach, and sat nearby on their pebbly nests. Each nest was surrounded by radiating streaks of white, giving them a cheery flower-like design. White droppings suggest a diet of fish or squid. Gentoos, the most temperate of the Antarctic penguins, can be recognized by their white headband and orange “lips.” Higher on the island we found pink nesting grounds – the color indicating the presence of dedicated krill-feeders. These were the territories of the Chinstrap penguins. Chinstraps are rendered all in black and white, but for their baleful deep red eyes.

Despite colorful variation in facial patterns, all penguins are decked in the standard black and white pattern. This is no accident. Counter-shading camouflage in so necessary to diving birds that all are fundamentally alike. But to our astonishment we found an exception. At the water’s edge stood a leucistic Chinstrap. This bird was whitish, but not quite an albino. Instead, it had pigmented eyes and a washed-out version of a Chinstrap’s normal pattern. Many wondered about this unusual bird’s chances of success. While odd coloration may make fishing a bit more difficult, leucistic birds are regularly found breeding normally.

In the afternoon we made our way across the Bransfield Strait on our way to the Weddell Sea. We slowed to travel with a humpback whale. Though once heavily hunted here, humpbacks have made the beginnings of a comeback – a pattern we hope other species will someday repeat. This whale allowed a close approach, and we had fine views of it. And then, southward, to bigger ice, larger penguin colonies, and spacious exploration.

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About the Author

David Stephens

David Stephens


David was born in England, and grew up close to Washington, D.C. He studied biology at the College of William and Mary, then moved west. David worked for many years as a Park Naturalist at Olympic and Acadia National Parks, and first traveled on National Geographic Sea Lion as a Glacier Bay Park Naturalist.

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