Origins ANTARCTICA, Scientific Journeys from McMurdo to the Pole
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  Emperor with camera backback. See an underwater movie. (get QuickTime)
© Christian McDonald

Penguin Ranch p.2

Emperor penguins on and under the ice.
by Mary K. Miller

December 15, 2001

Emperors are also the most accomplished diving birds in the world, a trait they need to take advantage of the underwater richness of Antarctica. They can dive under the ice for as long as 22 minutes without surfacing. The deepest dive ever recorded for an Emperor was 500 meters (1500 feet).

We got to see some Emperor penguins up close and learn more about their diving behavior when we visited a sea ice camp called the "Penguin Ranch." This scientific field camp outside McMurdo is run by Paul Ponganis, a research biologist from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Dr. Ponganis is also a medical doctor with a private practice, one of the most unusual dual careers I've ever run across.

At the Penguin Ranch, there were five penguins living in a fenced corral with two diving holes carved out of the sea ice. The penguins were free to dive as much as they wanted but also seemed quite content to hang out on the ice watching the group of red-coated people that were also checking them out. Some of the penguins had devices that looked like jet packs attached to their backs, either video cameras, depth recorders, or monitors that recorded the birds’ heart rates under water.

When he’s not in Antarctica or studying the diving physiology of penguins and seals, Dr. Ponganis is an anesthesiologist for a hospital in San Diego. He told us that the two lines of work are very complimentary. He uses his medical skills to anesthetize the birds before he outfits them with their electronic monitors or cameras. As a doctor, he admires the penguin’s ability to survive long periods without oxygen, something that his surgical patients cannot do.

Paul Ponganis in his research hut at the Penguin Ranch.

From his work at the Penguin Ranch, Dr. Ponganis has learned that Emperor penguins can live longer without breathing than people can because they store more oxygen in their muscles. They also conserve energy because their streamlined shapes and powerful wings allow them to swim through the water very efficiently. Emperor penguins can swim up to 8 miles per hour and will typically catch five to six fish before surfacing. If need be, they can even leap out of the water several feet to get away from the leopard seals or Orca whales that prey on them.

Once they do surface in the dive hole, we were amazed to hear how loud the penguins’ exhalations were as they recovered their breath. We were thrilled to spend some time with penguins early in our Antarctic expedition. Later this month, we plan to camp overnight at nearby Cape Royds and talk with some of the biologists studying Adelie penguins in a breeding colony there. The penguin population this year is greatly impacted by the amount of sea ice that has collected behind the giant iceberg B-15. Because the ice edge is so far away from Royds, the numbers of breeding penguins are lower this year than in recent history. How and when they’ll recover is something we hope to find out from the scientists at Cape Royds.

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