Getting personal with penguins

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Penguins are the number one attraction for many visitors to Antarctica. You're pretty much guaranteed to see them up close (as long as you go on a ship that is allowed to make shore landings.)

Keep in mind:

To get personal with penguins, you've got to be smart. First of all, keep in mind that visitor regulations to Antarctica require that you remain at least five meters (a little over five yards) away from penguins in order not to disturb them.

If a penguin is trying to move away from you, even if you're farther than five meters away, you must stop what you're doing and back off.

You could easily become responsible for the death of a penguin chick or the destruction of an egg, if your too-close presence should distract a penguin parent. Penguin predators like skuas and giant petrels are only too ready to seize any opportunity to feed themselves and their own offspring.

The rules, however, don't preclude a curious penguin from approaching you closer than five meters - as long as the bird makes the move, not you.

Penguin chicks, in particular, are quite curious. I've seen several lucky tourists who were astonished to find that chicks came right up to them. One chick even climbed onto a woman's lap. Even if a penguin comes extremely close to you, however, remember: you're not allowed to touch or hold them.

Tips for getting up close to the penguins:

1. Ignore the smell. A penguin rookery is filled with guano (feces) and the ammoniacal smell takes some getting used to. Think of a rookery as a polar barnyard.

2. Be quiet. Loud noises make penguins nervous.

3. Slow down. Fast or sudden movements signal predators to penguins, and they react accordingly.

4. Stay low, or sit down. You can use your life jacket as a cushion on the rocky ground.

5. Be patient. It may take half an hour or more before the penguins get used to you.

6. Find a place of your own. Get away from the crowd, although there's no need to hike to the far edge of a rookery. Just don't stay in a clump of people who may or may not be as good as you are at being quiet, slow, low, patient, etc.

7. Put away your camera. Too often people are so focused on getting the "money shot" that they forget to look with their own eyes. It's a different way of observing when you're not looking through a viewfinder. Most of my most memorable experiences in Antarctica are imprinted in my mind, not on a memory chip or roll of film.

Finally, one last suggestion. Go down to the beach at your landing site and wade out in the shallow water a bit - without letting the water overtop your boots, of course! If you wait a few minutes, you may well be rewarded with a close view of penguins swimming close by in the clear waters.

As they rocket past, you'll see for yourself how penguins really can fly.

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