Talking Trash: The Penguins of Vietnam

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Vietnam might be an unlikely choice of destination for avid penguin spotters, but a recent trip to South East Asia has shown me that things are not always as they seem. Animal lovers fear not, this is not a tale of animal cruelty and broiled birds. Instead, it is a lesson in international approaches to spreading the clean green message, and the use of penguins as receptacles to this effect. In short, it is about penguin rubbish bins.

The first time we saw a little black and white bird with an upturned beak and an empty Fanta bottle protruding from its jaws we thought ‘Aaaw, how sweet. What a novel way of dealing with the eyesore of public rubbish bins.’ It was somewhat out of place in the 40 degree heat, but the lush tropical surrounds just made the dichromatic colour scheme all the more noticeable. We duly deposited our Oreos packet into penguin’s beak as we exited the park and enjoyed the brief virtuous glow that such an action precipitated.

The second time we came across such a penguin was in the depths of a meandering limestone cave. While Antarctic species are not known for their spelunking abilities, New Zealand’s own Little Blue Penguins do nest in burrows, so the subterranean location of this critter was understandable. Most people continued on their way, photographing the gaudily lit stalactites and paying the form of the trash can no heed. I turned my camera in the other direction to capture the happy coincidence, then bought a fresh pack of Oreos at the snack stand by the exit.

The fourth time we saw a penguin rubbish bin we thought that perhaps there had been an extra zero added to an order at some point in the past. Maybe there was a surplus, so penguin bins were going cheap? There was a suspicious lack of mammalian or reptilian rubbish receptacles, so either it was an issue of supply and demand, or someone really didn’t like the polar critters. We were leaning towards the first option, right up until we visited the mines at Marble Mountain.

There, in the depths of a cave that was rich with geological and social history, we came face to face with a part of the mountain that was no longer mountain shaped at all. Instead, it boasted two flippers, two webbed feet, and a gaping mouth. This penguin shaped rubbish bin took the cake, both because of the craftsmanship demonstrated in the carving process and because of the way it blew our earlier theories out the window.

The penguin shaped rubbish bins weren’t an accident after all. There is something about their compact, oval form and protruding bellies that makes these critters a prime target for urban planners and their waste management division. If Happy Feet has been sending subliminal ecological messages to a generation of children, who knows what effect these penguin bins will have. Will they lead to the mass donation of crumpled food packaging to Penguin Rescue Shelters in coming years? If so, our marine birds had better develop a taste for High Fructose Corn Syrup quick-smart.

It’s a long shot, but so was heading to Vietnam on a penguin-themed holiday in the first place.

 

 

 

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On Penguins and Polar Bears

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New Zealand, or ‘Godzone’, is often characterized by its plusses: rivers, forests, beaches and birdlife. It can also be defined by its lacks: no snakes, bears or hungry predators out to get you every time you head bush. There is no bush to speak of in Antarctica, but it shares some similar traits: provided you don’t freeze to death, fall down a crevasse, or get on the wrong side of a hungry leopard seal, it is fairly safe as well.

Penguins are the epitome of the benign wildlife of the south. Dressed like little waiters and sporting the IQ of your average chicken, they are synonymous with the South Pole and have been used to promote everything from open source software to salt and vinegar ships. We encountered several varieties on our trip, each with their own quirks and customs.

Adelies look like they have had five cups of coffee too many, constantly darting left and right with a slightly crazed look in their glassy eyes. These are the downtown commuters of the ice, making their way to the edge of the bergs in packs that resemble crowds on a railway platform, then spilling into ocean en mass, mirroring the five pm office exodus.

Gentoo penguins are somewhat larger, with white patches over their eyes that resemble chic noise-cancelling headphones. They could do with such accessories too, as their call has the timbre of braying donkeys. During the summer months much of the cacophony comes from the chicks, triangular fluffballs with bottomless stomachs that are constantly pestering their parents for a feed.

You can see the penguins, you can hear the penguins, but what the postcards and nature documentaries don’t tell you is that the birds could do with an industrial-scale drenching in coco chanel. In short, they stink. The guano combination of fish and krill that coats the rocks throughout the rookeries can be seen from afar and smelt from even further.

This aroma did not deter early scientists from getting up close and personal with the wee waddlers. The ‘Fit for a FID’ cookbook details researchers’ recipes from the 1950s, and has a whole section dedicated to penguins. The author prefaces the section with the admission that ‘when cooking penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just that little too curious and stupid.’ These days penguin is off the menu, and we photograph penguin nests instead of devouring penguin breasts. Nevertheless, some people come up with interesting new ways of communing with the colonies. Turning around to find two human-sized penguins posing with their Lilliputian relatives was a surprise, to say the least.

Antarctica is much more than penguins and photo opportunities, but no trip south would be complete without a mention of both. Sure, if you lie still photographing the penguins for long enough a southern giant petrel may decide you resemble a tasty snack, but at least there are no roaming polar bears to finish you off. In that respect, it’s just like home after all.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

The Longest Day

PetePics_1003As the morning light seeps through the blinds in downtown Ashburton and stains the fridge golden, it’s hard to believe this is the same sun that stood watch over my entire Antarctica trip. It’s a good place to start a narrative though because although most of the trip was like an action movie on fast-forward playing out in a giant freezer, the sun stayed lazy and took its time.

During the summer months it never gets dark in Antarctica so in some ways it is like walking right into a Dali painting, the kind where the sky hangs like treacle and melted clocks prevent the future from ever happening. For my 14 University of Canterbury classmates and I that didn’t matter, because we had made it to The Ice for our two week field trip and were in no hurry to return home.

Upon arrival the first thing that struck me was the noise. Antarctica is renowned for its great silence, but we were welcomed by the rumbling engine of our C17 and serenaded by The Beatles on our way over to Scott Base. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an interesting few weeks.

After two days of field training at Scott Base we climbed into two Hägglunds and made our way out to the deserted ice shelf at Windless Bight. We were being treated to the ultimate polar experience, camping in the same sort of polar tents Scott and Amundsen used on their race to the pole. The weather must have been prewarned about our desire for authenticity because on day two the wind picked up, visibility dropped to 50m and the wind chill let us know what ‘cold’ really meant. Hunkering down and weathering the storm whilst reading the diaries of explorers who did the same was somewhat surreal.

Luckily the storm was short lived and we had brilliant blue skies under which to conduct our science over the next week. Measuring snow density, doing a seal census and doing a geological survey were all on the menu and designed to give us a taste of what field work in Antarctica is really like.

Spending a day out on the sea ice reading seals’ tags was a highlight of the trip and the closest we got to Antarctic wildlife, save the two very lost penguins who visited out camp at Christmas. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Their calls ricochet like electric guitars under ice in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little.

We did a lot of experimenting over the course of the trip, mainly with layering and unlayering clothes. While the nights required down jackets and inevitably led to frozen boots, the reflected light created a far better sun bed than any white sand beach and some days the sun felt warmer than back home. That may have had something to do with our black thermals soaking it up and causing us to pose as if we were in an advert for Speights as ‘Southern Women’, but being hot was not something I expected to experience in the coldest place on earth, not even in summer.

Back home in NZ everyone knows that summer equals sunscreen, and it’s no different in Antarctica. No different except for the fact that there is no ‘no burn’ time and protection is essential even at 2am. It was a bizarre feeling to be reaching to the SPF100 well past midnight and even stranger having to remember to dab it up into your nostrils because of the strength of the reflected UV rays. It was equally bizarre to be digging a snow cave at 1am and still have our pit lit up like a stage. We figured the whole sleep thing could wait until morning and the hyperactive sun did nothing to dissuade us from that view.

Santa, however, did. The next morning was Christmas and we were woken by his cherry ‘ho ho ho’ booming through our snow palace. It was time to get up and about, dig a Christmas table to sit around, partake in Shackleton’s finest whiskey and warble tunelessly about the white Christmas we no longer had to dream about. The Whiskey was a replica of the bottles found in Shackleton’s hut and perfect for making toasts to explorers past and present, especially given that we were celebrating exactly 100 years after Amundsen and Scott’s race to the Pole.

History played an important role in the trip and our last stop was Scott’s hut at Cape Evans. It was from there that Scott and his men launched their fateful expedition in 1911, bound for the South Pole. Packed full of artefacts that had been painstakingly restored, the detail of the place was astounding and the hut was full of memories, concentrated within the white landscape in the one wooden structure. Standing inside, the term ‘frozen in time’ took on a new meaning, but it was also a reminder that our time was coming to a close.
I was struck by the amazing light, where the shafts of sun seemed to hypnotise the dust, trapping it in limbo. That light has stayed with me as an indelible memory of my time in Antarctica and my longest day, even as the sun slides off the edge of the fridge and is gone.

Hanne Nielsen was a student on the University of Canterbury’s Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies course over the 2011/2012 Summer, run by Gateway Antarctica. Article originally published in The Ashburton Guardian. Photo: Peter Wilson