Thomas Mead: Visiting an Adelie penguin colony in Antarctica

I watched as the little fluffy Adelie penguin chick was ripped apart, and thought: ‘We can’t put this on the news’.

It had been huddling with its friends but now they were watching on silently, as it tried to stop the skua pecking its eyes out.

I had assumed that Cape Bird on the Antarctic Peninsula was a haven for penguins, a safe place to raise their young, but now it was clear I was standing in the middle of a great battle for survival.

Cameraman Bob Grieve and I were there to film a TV story on a group of New Zealand scientists, studying the tiny black and white penguins.

It took around 30 minutes in a helicopter from Scott Base, flying over sea ice and a glacier tongue, to arrive at their remote hut on Ross Island.

The first hint of what we were about to witness came as we made the short walk to the colony and the smell of 10,000 years of bird poo wafted over the hill.

The scientists grinned. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

We reached the top and 60,000 Adelie penguins came into view. They sprawled into the horizon, covering every nest site available along the beach and even up into the hills over hundreds of metres.

The sound was overwhelming, with thousands of penguins chiming in at once as skua soared overhead.

We descended, carefully and in single file, into what seemed like absolute chaos.

The penguins were adorable up close, awkwardly waddling back and forth and hustling to bring food back to their young.

At this time of year the chicks bunch together in small piles, called a crèche, with adults taking turns to stand around as bodyguards.

I watched in horror as a chick, all cute and fluffy, ran away from the group to beg a passing adult for food. The skua swooped in and spent 10 minutes dispatching it in front of the others.

This, the researchers explained, was the reality of the survival of the fittest in their world. I shouldn’t judge, the skua were only trying to raise their own chicks.

The bones underfoot were a harsh contrast to the beauty of the place, with new life brought into the world on top of carcasses.

It was, though, undeniably beautiful. Later we sat by a glacier and watched as hundreds of adults walked along the beach in a penguin parade, diving into the ocean in groups. Soon they were visible jumping through the waves on the way to fish for their chicks.

As we sat there in silence, just taking it in, I started to understand why the penguins chose to come back year after year despite the threat overhead.

It was a place untouched by humans, allowed to continue as it always had, and always should be.

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