Gentoo Penguins Learning to Swim
 - Pygoscelis papua papua

Gentoo penguin

Gentoo penguin

This is one of my favourite events that I was privileged to see when I was in Antarctica. Gentoo penguins - one of my favourite Antarctic animals being cute, comic and noble all at the same time. The Gentoos - they're the ones with the orange beaks -  in these pictures are youngsters that have only just moulted their juvenile down and have grown their adult plumage, though are the penguin equivalent of young teenagers I guess.

It was a calm, mild day and nearly all of the adult birds were off fishing in the favourable conditions leaving the youngsters behind in their crèche. For some reason, though these birds had never been in the sea before, they decided pretty much altogether that it was time to learn to swim and so they all waddle down to the shore-line where there is only a very gentle swell with waves of just an inch or two high coming in - ideal conditions.

Unlike seals, penguins learn to swim without their parents and these started off paddling in the shallows. Some of the less adventurous types mis-timing the waves and suddenly getting about two inches of water over their feet would turn round and run back up the beach flippers outstretched in considerable horror. Eventually, they did all end up standing around in the water like a collection of matronly old aunts "taking the waters", they'd go in up their waists (or where the waist would be if they had one) and look quite pleased with themselves waving their flippers around a bit. Every now and then, one of those pesky waves would come again and take them by surprise, so it was jump up, flippers out and all rush out of the sea again. All in all it was about half an hour before they were all standing in the water and appeared to be anything like comfortable with being there.

A few of them laid down in water about 2 or 3 inches deep and put their beak in the water, a bit like children daring themselves to put their face in the water, then over the next half an hour or so, they moved back out of the sea and went back to wait for mum and dad to come with an after-dip snack.

Other penguin species are much more forthright about the whole process, Adelies for instance, stand en-masse at the waters edge and then jump into "the deep end" right from the start. I thought the Gentoo approach was far more civilized and genteel.


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Photo copyright - Paul Ward /