Penguin Poop Leads Ice Researchers To Unknown Colony

Feb 7, 2013
Originally published on February 8, 2013 8:55 pm

In 2009, a team of researchers from the British Antarctic Survey were studying satellite images of the Antarctic when they noticed something interesting: trails of penguin poop. That showed signs of a huge emperor penguin colony.

The existence of the colony was unconfirmed until a team of researchers from the International Polar Foundation visited in December 2012.

Alain Hubert, founder of the International Polar Foundation, was one of three researchers from the foundation's Princess Elisabeth Antarctica polar research station to visit the 9,000-strong colony of penguins on Antarctica's Princess Ragnhild Coast.

"When you arrive, they just come to see you, to watch you, to turn around you," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. "The penguins — and especially the emperors — they are so human. They're so cute."

Since the penguins had never encountered humans, Hubert says they weren't scared, just curious.

Hubert and his team live at the research station during the Antarctic summer and are focused on studying climate change, not penguins. After they encountered a number of emperor penguins, they were convinced that a colony must be close by. They decided to make the treacherous 30-mile trip east to the sea ice.

"First of all, you have to imagine you're in the middle of nowhere — without any visibility, with complete whiteout after 24 hours driving on the ice — you go down to the sea."

After navigating their way to the sea, they searched for hours and found more penguins than they had ever imagined. Hubert says that seeing so many animals huddled together was like being on another planet.

"I spent more than five years of my life in the polar regions, but that was the kind of moment that I wouldn't have expect[ed] to be able to ... just enjoy," Hubert says. "It's a privilege."

If there was enough penguin poop to see from space, it seems like there would be quite a stench on the ground. Hubert says it wasn't a problem.

"It's too cold, really, to smell it, you know?" Hubert says. "I spoke to some scientists ... and they told me if it was a bit warmer, it's really smelly."

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In 2009, a team of researchers studying satellite images of the Antarctic noticed something interesting: trails of penguin poop. Eventually, they spotted what looked like a colony of emperor penguins, but there's only so much you can find out from space. Luckily, there were some volunteers not too far away. Researchers from the International Polar Foundation visit Antarctica to study climate change, not penguins. But this past December, three members of the team made a 30-mile trip to find 9,000 emperor penguins.

If you have questions about their discovery - and we'd especially like to hear from those of you who know something about penguins - give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from the Princess Elizabeth Antarctica station via Skype is expedition leader Alain Hubert. Alain, thanks very much for being with us today.

ALAIN HUBERT: Yeah. Good afternoon.

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about this discovery. Thirty miles, it's quite a hike in Antarctica.

HUBERT: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's - first of all, you have to imagine you're in the middle of nowhere, without any visibility, with complete whiteout after 24 hours driving on the ice, you go down to the sea. And weather is not heavy. I mean, no wind. So as soon as I was there, I saw the photo. Therefore, we decided, at night, to try to figure it out, if this colony was around.

And first of all, maybe - there are no nights in Antarctica during the summer, so we can go around in the middle of the night. The visibility was very bad. You know, you have to - I was stressed looking at the crevices for two, three hours before arriving at the edge of the ice shelf and discovering, far away, some, you know, spots of penguins. That's the first thing.

And then we had to go down to the ice. You might know that in Antarctica, when you arrive at the coast, you are in a cliff at about 30, 40 meters high. So you don't have a direct access to the sea. So we had to find our way, you know. And finally, after a few hours, we just came to the first group of penguins on the sea ice. You know, it's ice about one meter thick. And that was, for me, absolutely fantastic, because it has been years that I'm operating there - seven years. And every time you go to the sea, you arrive (unintelligible). And after a few minutes, you have those penguins, you know, just comes to say hello and to look at you, because they are the local population. We are not. And so...

CONAN: They come to say hello to you? They're not frightened of you?

HUBERT: Oh, yes, yes. This is amazing, and this part of (unintelligible) of Antarctic. Animals are protected, so they are not scared of scared of human. So when you arrive, they just come to see you, to watch you, to turn around you. And, you know, the penguins - and especially the emperors - they are so human. They're so cute. They - it was, you know, I spent more than five years of my life in the Polar regions, but that was the kind of moment that I wouldn't have expect to be able to, I mean, to just enjoy.

So - and then a second group and a third group, a fourth, fifth, and we - there's more than 10,000 animals over there, and three quarters of them are chicks. So it's in the middle of the night with these kind of yellow lights, you know, clouds and the sea, which is dark. It's really like being on another planet. It's a privilege.

CONAN: How tall are the penguins? And when you say they come over to say hello, do they poke you? Do they look at you in the eye?

HUBERT: Yes. They come and, you know, they have this movement with their heads, you know? They are about 80 to one meter for the taller. But the chicks, they are about, you know, 50s, 40, 50 centimeters.

CONAN: So the adults come up to your waist and the chicks are knee-high.

HUBERT: Yes. They stay behind. And after a while, if you stand around without moving too much, they come as well, you know? And then after a while, they turn back and they go to another place. And it's like you're part of them, you know? It's really something we don't use to experience.

CONAN: It must have been a wonderful experience. I know it's summer in Antarctica, but it's Antarctica. How cold is it?

HUBERT: Well, it's the summer, as you say. So it's about minus 50, minus 20 around the coast. But our station is situated in the mountains, and we very often are going to the plateau, and then it's minus 30 degrees Celsius. I'm must precise. And - but, you know, temperature is something, but wind is another thing. And if you take in account the wind, it's - often we operate between minus 30 to minus 50, 60 degrees Celsius. So it's quite tough.

CONAN: And I have to ask you. What do 10,000 penguins smell like?

HUBERT: What do you mean?

CONAN: Is there an odor?

HUBERT: I mean, no odor.

CONAN: How do they smell?

HUBERT: Oh, no, well, I mean, it's too cold, really, to smell it, you know? But - which is I think an advantage. But, yeah, well...

CONAN: Probably.

HUBERT: Scientist does - I spoke to some scientists that and they told me, if it was a bit warmer, it's really smelly.


CONAN: Now you are not a penguin specialist. What was the most interesting thing you learned about penguins?

HUBERT: Well, for scientists, as you mentioned, in beginning, you know, it's interesting to see that satellite can be efficient to monitor the population of, like here, emperor penguins. It's important for biodiversity. For me, what was interesting is that we are speaking, now, about extinction of penguins because of global warming. And those colony are situated, you know, in what we call a reef. It's a long protected place, which is completely safe for them to able to move, because you might know that every year, they have to move and they need a strong ice to be able to do so. And in Antarctic now, there are less and less ice during the summer and those animals, they have problems to survive. So it was interesting to see how they can adapt. That's the first conclusion.

But I made - the second thing is that they are less - few deaths, you know, chicks, which means that it's a healthy colony. So I think we're going to go back next year to make, you know, a more detailed survey and counting of this to report to the scientists.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We have Audrey with us. And Audrey is with us from Minneapolis. Go ahead, please.

AUDREY: Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I actually had the opportunity to work in Antarctica about five years ago and got to see some Adelies close up and was shocked at their, you know, lack of fear. But the day I was leaving, the C-17 that we fly - was used to fly in on came in and there was an adelie penguin on the runway, and all the dignitaries were out there, trying to get this penguin off there. And, of course, it had no idea of what was going on. They had to flag off this gigantic, you know, airliner and, you know, probably cost another $5,000 to make a trip around. But I was wondering, where are you in relationship to either McMurdo or Palmer stations?

HUBERT: You know what, I mean, we are situated on the other side of the Antarctic, at 4,000 kilometers from McMurdo. So from the Atlantic coast, at the 23-degree east, so it's exactly the opposite. So we, you know, I've been to McMurdo when I crossed the Antarctic 14 years ago. But we don't have a daily contact, you know, with this station at McMurdo or the South Pole.

AUDREY: I did have one question, if I may. There's been a lot of talk about climate change and how it's affecting the penguins on that side of Antarctica, west Antarctica as they call it. So is there any - this is obviously a pretty good discovery because all we've been hearing, so far, lately is that penguins were in severe trouble. So I was wondering if this is something that's really showing something otherwise, that they are adapting or this is a colony no one ever knew about.

HUBERT: Yeah. Well, I think that they are able to adapt in certain parts of the Antarctic. We are situated in the east Antarctic, and they are in the rift(ph), you know, very well protected on the sea ice, which doesn't melt at all during the whole summer. So they are very clever, and it's a healthy colony. So I think - and what you have to know that McMurdo, it's at 77 degrees south. We are - this colony are at 70-degree south, which is not farther north and normally more fragile. And it's not case, so it's quite interesting. It's why I think we're going to go back and look a bit more carefully to how they survive. And, you know, that penguins, you have to go in November, December because after that, they go all around and the colony - the place where they breed is completely empty during the summer. So we - for us, it's difficult because we have to go very early in the season. And it's not that easy, of course.

CONAN: Audrey...

HUBERT: It's a good question.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

AUDREY: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We are talking with Alain Hubert, who is the leader of the expedition that found that emperor penguin colony on Antarctica's Princess Coast. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I have to ask, we keep hearing from the opposite end of the Earth, from the North Pole about how sea ice is disappearing, how this past winter was the worst year in recorded history for the sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere. What about there in the south?

HUBERT: Yeah. Well, but it's completely different. Antarctica's a continent, which is covered by ice. Ninety eight percent of the surface is covered by ice. And the size of this continent is twice the size of the United States. So it's a huge desert. On the North Pole, it's on the ocean. So the ice, it's a sea ice. And I used to go every year. After my Antarctic season, I go to the North Pole guiding people. I cross Arctic two times. And this is completely different. In 15 years, I used to go there. You're right. The thickness of the ice is decreasing a lot, and this ice is always moving. People might not know that because of the movement of the Earth and the wind, you know, when you are walking on the ice on the Arctic Ocean, you never stay at the same place.

And this is - what happens there, it's important. You mentioned that - and why is it important because the ice is white color, which reflecting the energy coming from the sun. If there are no more ice during the few months, during the summer, it means that it's the color of the ocean, which is blue dark. And it's absorbing the energy of the sun, and it change completely, the dynamic to of exchange heat between the atmosphere and the ocean and the Earth. So it's why we worry about the North Pole at the moment. And in Antarctic, it's completely different because this is a continental ice, which is quite stable in the eastern part. So people are confused about that, yes.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on. This is Steve. Steve with us from Boston.

STEVE: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

STEVE: Great. Just relating a story from years ago in the Coast Guard. I had a friend who was a helicopter pilot and I was a Coast Guard rescue pilot myself. But he was on a deployment in the Antarctica region off the Coast Guard Cutter, and they were just doing a daily patrol, looking for different things. And they go on the beach line, they came across a colony of about 5,000 penguins. I'm not sure if they were emperors or not. But anyway, they were coming from left to right. And they went over - the penguins at about 1,000 feet and 100 knots, and these things, all 5,000 kind of went from right to left on their heads as they passed over in unison.

It's not that they're interesting. So we turn around, went the other way. Sure enough, all 5,000, left to right, every head turned as they went over. So they came one more pass. They went out to the north and came straight over to beach line perpendicular. All the penguins were looking straight ahead. They fly right over the beach line, take a picture and they look behind and 5,000 penguins, like, bowling pins all over the beach line. They just lost it as they went backwards.


STEVE: It was the funniest thing you ever saw.

CONAN: Oh, that's an interesting story, Steve. Thanks very much.


STEVE: Curious birds. Curious birds.

CONAN: Curious birds. Did you have any experiences like that, Alain?

HUBERT: Well, I mean, that was my first time, you know, that I really meet a huge colony. But what we used to meet is those birds when we are working on sea ice. So - and it's true they're coming like that and they don't care about us, you know? They are the master of the place. You know, we are the foreigners as I can say. And, yeah, well, I mean, we are not used, you know? We think that we are the master of the world. And here in Antarctica, you are in the middle of nowhere in an environment which is so different. We lose all our reference. So we are a bit lost, a bit scared.

CONAN: And...

HUBERT: And we are not the owner of the place yet.

CONAN: Of course, not. Other than the penguins, what other animals are there?

HUBERT: Well, you have these adelies was mentioned by your auditor, who are smaller than the emperor and you have lots seals. And, of course, snow patrols and lots of birds. So it's quite populated place, in fact. And as I said, it's - they always come, you know, when you arrive. Maybe, you know, they hear you working on the ice, who are arriving with your Ski-doo. I don't know. So that's, yeah, well, and the seals, you know, they are so lazy animals. It's amazing. They are lying down on the ice, especially on a sunny day. It's- yeah, well, what's really interesting for us is that, you know, we are working over there. So - and sometimes we can escape or if we're working and then they just come to visit and look at us. It's - yeah, well, it's - we never know when they will come. And I think that that's good. And as you come, yeah.

CONAN: I'm afraid we have to wrap it up. But thank you, very much for your time today. Stay warm.

HUBERT: Yes. Thanks.

CONAN: Alain Hubert joined us from Princess Elizabeth Antarctica station via Skype. He's the founder of the International Polar Foundation. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at digital data and how we control information. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.