Dyan deNapoli visits Antarctica to view endangered penguins
By Sally Applegate / correspondent
Fri Feb 27, 2009, 12:18 PM EST
Penguins — the appealing flightless birds are so popular in our culture they regularly star in movies and cartoons. Unfortunately their future is far from certain as global warming disrupts their habitat. Penguin expert Dyan deNapoli of Georgetown knows that too well.
deNapoli has just returned from Antarctica after serving as the onboard penguin authority on the ship Antarctic Dream. For the trip, she acted as a guest lecturer and penguin expert.
“The PR person for Antarctic Shipping S.A. in Chile looked up penguin experts and found that the whole first page on the Internet was me,” says deNapoli. “After reading that, Adam York called me in April and asked if I’d like to exchange my expertise for a free 11-day trip to Antarctica. I asked if my husband Marc could come with me and they agreed. I accepted right away.”
The lure of the trip for deNapoli was as much about making people aware of the environmental threat to penguin populations as it was actually seeing the Antarctic peninsula in person. She spent nine years as a senior penguin aquarist at the New England Aquarium in Boston, where she found the penguins to be smart, curious and affectionate, each with its own distinctive personality.
She is currently writing a book on her experiences serving as a rehabilitation manager during the massive international rescue effort that saved 91 percent of the 20,000 penguins covered with oil when the iron ore ship MV Treasure sank near their South African breeding grounds.
She has received extremely generous advance offers from publishers for the rights to her upcoming book on the historic and heroic wildlife rescue in the year 2000. It was the largest number of a single species ever to be rescued and rehabilitated.
Years of field experience with penguins led to an invitation for her to write a new penguin entry for the New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, the oldest encyclopedia in the United States, according to deNapoli.
“They wanted a completely new chapter on penguins, since theirs had not been updated for 40 years,” says deNapoli. “I just wrote this from scratch, keeping it within the style of the rest of the encyclopedia. They said they were thrilled with it. It came out in 2008.”
The boat to Antarctica
Getting to and from Antarctica by boat is a real challenge, as the route goes through Cape Horn and the Drake Passage at the southern tip of South America, the stormiest patch of ocean on the planet. Cape Horn is notorious for huge waves as high as 55-feet, gale force winds and icebergs. Numerous ships were lost there before the Panama Canal was built in 1914.
The boat — carrying deNapoli, her husband, 43 crew and about 69 passengers — encountered five- to eight-foot waves going down, and nine- to 15-foot waves coming back.
“When we first came on board and entered the dining room, we saw all the chairs were chained to the floor,” says deNapoli. “The Antarctic Dream is a former naval vessel, without a stabilizer, so there is a lot of pitching from side to side. A lot of the passengers were seasick. You worked all day to keep your balance. Trying to take a shower you tried not to fall down. In the dining room the waiters were amazing, carrying these heavy trays. At every meal you’d hear trays crashing in the kitchen.
“The weather can change in a heartbeat. As we were leaving Antarctica on our last day, within a 45-minute period we encountered sideways snow, driving rain, sunshine, flat seas, and eight-foot seas.”
Since it is now summer in Antarctica, the sun never set, and deNapoli says as a result she never felt tired and she and her husband took pictures almost around the clock the first day.
“You are in a stunningly beautiful area, and you always get to enjoy it [in daylight],” says deNapoli.
The trip takes two-and-a-half days each way. The Antarctic Dream is relatively small and could get into bays some of the larger vessels can’t enter.
“We made two landings a day in Zodiacs, and there were plenty of penguins, mostly Gentoo with some Chinstrap,” says deNapoli. “Because the chicks were still small, the adults were calm about our presence, but less likely to come up to us than when it isn’t breeding season. We saw penguins, penguins, and more penguins — doing breeding displays, and with chicks or eggs. We got to see the trade-off of the egg when one parent came back from feeding in the sea. It was very cool. It’s a photographer’s paradise.”
On the final day, passengers got a chance to swim at Deception Bay, where heat vents from a volcano create warm water.
“It wasn’t swimming actually, they only dug us an eight-inch-deep hole, so we were more like wallowing,” says deNapoli. “We jumped into the 30 degree ocean water then ran across the sand to the warm water. We each got a certificate that says, ‘I swam in Antarctica.’”
Penguins in peril
Global warming is now threatening all 17 species of penguins on the planet, and at an alarming rate, according to penguin expert Dyan deNapoli of Georgetown. Rising water temperatures are causing the fish, squid and krill penguins depend on to move further away to find colder waters and currents. They often move out of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic penguins’ hunting range, leading to starvation of adults and chicks, and sometimes stopping them from breeding altogether.
Sea ice in Antarctica is steadily decreasing, removing the breeding grounds for the krill that the penguins eat and decreasing their food supply. Warming temperatures in Antarctica are causing large sections of ice shelf to break free from the continent, one as large as Rhode Island and one seven times the size of Manhattan. These huge floating ice chunks sometimes block access to breeding grounds the penguins have used for thousands of years, and they are abandoning them.
Increasing snowfall caused by global warming is burying penguin nests, and when the snow melts, the nests fill with water, drowning the eggs or chicks. Many penguins are abandoning their colonies and moving further south in search of colder temperatures. The Emperor penguins made famous in the film “March of the Penguins” are losing the ice shelves where they breed and raise their chicks 70 miles inland from the sea. DeNapoli says chicks whose waterproof feathers are not in place by the time the ice shelf melts back to where they are being raised are already drowning as a result.
You can learn more about penguins and global warming at www.AllExperts.com in a section written by deNapoli. She intends to donate a significant portion of the proceeds from her upcoming book on the historic penguin rescue in Africa to the organizations listed at her Web site
Images and story courtesy of Wicked Local Georgetown @