Paul Harvey and the Penguins of Patagonia

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A few weeks ago, Dee Boersma, professor of penguins from the University of Washington, announced that she’d figured out why baby penguins at a place called Punta Tombo in Argentina are dying at a greater rate than they used to.

I’m a sucker for charismatic megafauna, especially when penguins are involved, and that got my attention. The conscientious way penguins stand guard outside their burrows shows them to be better parents than I ever was. Heck, it makes them better parents than Bill Cosby. They swim longer distances in the ocean than Diana Nyad and they’re cuter than Sally Fields and Holly Hunter added together.

Professor Boersma has spent a lot of her career trying to figure out why so many of their babies are dying. Finally, after a decade of effort, she gathered her conclusions, rechecked her facts, and courageously identified climate change as the culprit. It turns out that it rains more in Patagonia than it used to, penguin chicks get wet, and, without their waterproof adult feathers, they shiver themselves to death.

Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you.

Since Punta Tombo is the biggest-deal penguin colony in Argentina and climate change is an even bigger deal everywhere else, the news reverberated around the world and back again, like the boom from Mount Krakatoa. Within hours, it had rung church bells as far away as the New York Times,the Los Angeles Times, the Voice of America, the Voice of Russia, the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, Good Morning America, Bird-Watching Daily, and, undoubtedly, any number of other sanctuaries of learning that I’m not invited into.

As charismatic as penguins are, you may not have thought you’d have to care about their chicks in Patagonia, but you should. Bad things happening to penguins are, it seems, a leading indicator of bad things about to happen to you. And it’s not just rain that’s about to happen. Nowadays, penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to. Nobody exactly says this, but the implication hangs in the air like an ash cloud over the Sunda Islands that it has something to do with overfishing in the South Atlantic.

I have no doubt that Ms Boersma knows penguins, that she has accounted for every dead chick with the greatest of care, that she is telling the truth about what she observed, and that she is the leading expert on penguins in general and the penguins of Punta Tombo in particular.

In fact, she is such an expert that she has achieved one of the few immortal indicators of expertness that it is in humans’ poor power to give. The beat-up old trailer she lived in for 30 years while she counted dead penguin chicks isn’t at Punta Tombo anymore. Like Abraham Lincoln’s stove-pipe hat, it now belongs to the ages and is safely lodged in a museum. Which goes to show just how expert she really is. Still, there may be more to this dying-penguin business than we’ve been told. I was at Punta Tombo ten days before the news about the baby penguins got loose and, well, as Paul Harvey used to say, there is a rest to this story.

In the first place, for whatever reason it is that penguins have to swim farther out to sea to find food than they used to, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have much to do with overfishing. These are Magellanic penguins, mostly; what Magellanic penguins eat is krill; and nobody fishes for krill.

As far as anybody knows, even Japanese sushi fishermen don’t fish for krill. But, since the Japanese do sometimes fish for minke, fin, and humpback whales . . . and minke, fin, and humpback whales eat lots of krill . . . every whale that winds up in a Japanese meat market for scientific purposes is one less whale out there depleting the krill supply. A lot of fish eat krill, too, and if the seas are as overfished as we’ve been told, you’d think there’d be so much extra krill floating around the South Atlantic that penguins could just lap it up from the shore. My guess is that the fact they can’t has more to do with the population dynamics of penguins than with anything we humans have done.

And the penguins at Punta Tombo have a pretty dynamic population. If Ms. Boersma’s count is anywhere near correct, something like a million of them spend the summer jostling together on two miles of beach. Penguins are everywhere at Punta Tombo. They stand in ranks, crowded together shoulder to shoulder like spectators at the Rose Parade. Penguins nestle under every bush, and there are lots of bushes. Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

Penguins shade themselves beneath the boardwalks that would keep them separate from tourists, except for the other penguins that hop up onto the boardwalks and stroll along, causing knots of humans to stand politely aside and wait for them to pass. At Punta Tombo, penguins have the right-of-way. Sometimes the penguins don’t pass but mill around conducting penguin business while tourists wait for their turn to use the boardwalks, and tour guides fidget about schedules.

Families of penguins live in every hole, and there are more holes at Punta Tombo than there are in Mr. Obama’s explanations.

All along the beach penguins plop into the ocean. Shoals of penguins already in the ocean porpoise through the waves and then pop back onshore, when they can find a vacant place to pop onto. For sheer crowdedness, Punta Tombo is the Daytona Beach of the penguin world, and, since every female penguin lays two eggs, the colony becomes a lot more crowded as the eggs begin to hatch. If all the chicks survived, that would come to two million penguins’ worth of food the colony would go through during chick-raising season. Even with chicks dying, it’s hard to imagine there could be a krill left within hundreds of miles of the place. But there was in the past. Things aren’t what they used to be. Ms. Boersma is pretty clear on that point.

What the articles about dead-penguin-chicks-as-leading-indicators-of-bad-things-about-to-happen-to-you don’t delve into too deeply when they tell us that things aren’t what they used to be, is that things really aren’t what they used to be. Despite all the penguins at Punta Tombo, 50 or 60 years ago the place was a working ranch and there weren’t any penguins at all. Somewhere along the way the ranch turned into a nature reserve, penguins started popping out of the water, digging holes, building nests, raising families, ambling along boardwalks, swimming out to sea, inviting more penguins to come join them — and, in a twinkling of geological time, what used to be a ranch had changed into the largest penguin colony in Argentina.

Which suggests to me that, even if every single chick from this year’s hatching gets rained to death, there will still be a million more penguins at Punta Tombo than there were when I was in kindergarten and the only thing I knew about penguins was when Miss Ridley showed us pictures of them. This must mean something. Maybe, even, about the weather.




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Visitor

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Fred Mora

Mr Merritt,

A funny and interesting article. I think it's a safe bet to assume Ms Boersma is a leftist, since she is an academic and has neither been vilified or ignored.

A good leftist has no notion of competition. She probably loathes the term, and would be horrified to think about applying it to the object of her studies. Especially mind-boggling must be the fact that thanks to whaling restrictions, the krill-eating cetacean population is growing, and that means competition for the penguins.

Of course, that kind of conclusion would probably not have landed press interviews and a museified trailer.

Science used to be exemplified by a fulcrum that could move the world. Modern science has shrunk it to a stick, and the only recognized scientists are those who avoid grabbing the organically-coated end.

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