8:27pm 29/11/2022
The Emperor Penguin, so noble and seemingly unreachable
By:Lee San

The emperor penguins in Antarctica, as the name suggests, are the kings of all penguins, which only live in biting cold frozen lands on the southernmost end of our planet, making them really too remote to reach for most of us.

With global warming picking up in intensity, the icebergs are melting at unprecedented rates.

Today, we only have slightly more than ten thousand of these adorable creatures on the icy continent, and they are being forced to migrate further south for survival, making them even more inaccessible if we wish to catch a glimpse of them.

This is the fifth time I have traveled to Antarctica with the ultimate motive of seeing the emperor penguins. But this will also mean I have to take the electric icebreaker through thick floating ice shelves towards the extreme south.

It looks like these emperor penguins are truly noble and unreachable, huh!

Still remember during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when I was stranded on an Antarctic cruise unable to dock or return home? Now I’m back in Antarctica looking for the emperor penguins after the pandemic!

Although we are on a different cruise this time, we happen to partner with the same captain again. I told this witted and capable French captain: We’ve come to meet again 12,933 km away, with the common goal of conquering these seemingly unreachable emperors. I will have to lay all my hopes on you to have my dream fulfilled!

There are 17 species of penguins in this world, of which the emperor penguin is one of the five largest bird species on the planet, each weighing between 25 and 45 kg and measuring 110 cm in height. They are considered a very rare species already listed by the United States as an endangered wild bird species owing to global warming.

Indeed, in my earlier expeditions to Antarctica, I have witnessed with my own eyes over and again the broken ice shelves, collapsing icebergs and melting glaciers.

And now cruising in the remote southern seas, what greets me is countless floating ice sheets which while looking truly grandiose, is outright heartbreaking.

As if that’s not enough, the southeast coast of the Antarctica peninsula is now barren, the exposed dark rock surfaces looking sinister and alarming.

Compared to other penguin species, the emperor penguins boast some exceptional features. For instance, they only live on ice, and in the absence of ice, they will have to migrate further south for survival.

The most unusual characteristic is that they only have one faithful partner in a year, and together their common goal is to take extreme care of their chicks until the second year when they will bid each other farewell and look for a different partner for the coming year.

I suddenly remember what a tour guide once told me: the albatrosses with their enormous wingspan unfurling in the southern skies strictly adhere to the principle of monogamy and will stay faithful to their one and only partners for up to three decades!

As a matter of fact, emperor penguins are social animals, and will squeeze themselves and hug together to fend off the icy winds and extreme coldness during inclement weather. They can normally live for 10 to 20 years and spend most of their time feeding, mating, hatching, and then repeating the whole routine over and again, year after year.

In fact, are we humans not also going through the same routine every day, working hard to feed our respective families throughout much of our mortal lives?

Winter begins in March and April every year in Antarctica, when sexually mature male and female emperor penguins above the age of five leave the coastal areas where they feed, and travel 50 to 120 km to the breeding zone further inland to mate, lay eggs and hatch…

The temperature inland could dip 30 degrees below the freezing point at this time, packing winds up to 150 kph.

In May and June the same year, the penguin mother will lay the eggs and then travel to the ocean some 70 km away to look for food to replenish her energy. That’s when the penguin father takes over the momentous responsibility of hatching the eggs for 65 days, eating and drinking nothing, not moving, only sleeping.

After the baby penguins have broken the shells, the father will continue to take care of the young chicks while the mother is still away.

After two months in the sea, the penguin mother will be back to the breeding zone (actually the return journey alone takes over a month), and by way of sound recognition look for her partner, and then throw out the food stored inside the stomach to feed the family.

After that, it will be the father’s turn to go out to the sea to look for food. After he comes back, the mother will go out again…

They will take turns to feed the chicks until the summer in November when the whole family will travel together to the icy sea to hunt for food.

The following year’s winter, sexually mature penguins will travel again to the breeding zone and repeat the whole process, year after year for the rest of their lives!

On this sunny morning, the icebreaker slowly cruises into the Snow Hill floating ice zone where the largest emperor penguin feeding habitat on the planet is found.

I follow the expedition team treading on the thick and soft snow for 8 km up and down in five hours to eventually see the thousands of male and female emperor penguins and their 4-month-old chicks!

Emperor penguins are unique in that they are tall and round and are absolutely adorable. As they walk along, they occasionally fall flat on the icy floor with their belly down in order to slide forward.

As a matter of fact, these penguins are very accommodating, versatile and determined in dealing with the surrounding environment as well as their daily lives.

This is my fifth expedition to Antarctica, and the trip makes me fully comprehend the eternal law that everything comes into being for a reason.

If we humans are able to lay down our ego and learn to live peacefully with Nature, we are assured a perfect habitat to live on this planet. Unfortunately, human greed knows no boundaries, as we bare our utterly deplorable human nature before our insatiable lusts.

P/S: Gazing at the lovable birds, I was pondering and praying that after the dust has finally settled on GE15 back home, the new team of capable leaders will take us Malaysians of very diverse cultural backgrounds to live together in perfect harmony, as the nation forges ahead towards greater prosperity.

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)



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