Day 9: January 9 2019

An attentive reader has written in saying: ‘I don’t understand. In Blog 1 you said they never set foot on the continent, but in Blog 7 you talk of Wordie’s ‘rock collection’. How can that be? You cannot collect rocks without going on land!’

The answer is that Wordie’s rock collection consisted mainly of small stones, or what are called gastroliths (look it up), extracted from the stomachs of dissected penguins.

As soon as the poor bird was dead, but probably still twitching, Wordie and Robbie Clark were snouts down and into its tripes like a couple of old pigs grubbing for truffles. One was seeking pebbles, the other was after squid beaks.

For me, one of the joys of going through the diaries is being able to compare and contrast (as examination questions like to put it) the varied descriptions of the same event to produce a more rounded picture of what was going on. For instance, in ‘Chippy’ McNish’s diary for the 31st December, 1914, we read: ‘Made [a pen] for which we caught 5 penguins today, 1 emperor and 4 adélies.’

The reason why they were penning the penguins was so that they could be killed as required by both the cook and the scientists. If they killed them all at once, those they did not use immediately would soon be frozen solid. We hear no more of the adélies, but we do know what happened to the unfortunate emperor. On 4th January, 1915, Wordie wrote:

‘I have been looking more closely at the pebbles got from the emperor penguin on Dec 31st; the quantity is almost double that I got from the emperor on Dec 17th. I notice two kinds of granite, a grit, purple sandstone, very micaceous sandstone and two kinds of dyke stone.’

Ten days later he related the following:

‘I am numbering off the contents of the emperor penguins’ stomachs as if they were land deposits. The stomach of a young emperor caught on Tuesday night has given a good deal of amusement; there is about ½ Ib of pebbles, the biggest having a maximum dimension of one inch.’

The question becomes why do penguins ingest stones? As far as I am aware, there is no clear answer for this. In the case of the emperors it cannot be linked to their nesting habits because, unlike most of the other penguin species, emperors do not nest, their eggs are incubated on the tops of their feet beneath a flap of skin. Nor can the source of the stones be from the land, because emperors are only ever on the ice and snow. The stones must therefore come from a marine environment. Early thought supposed that they were consumed by accident while feeding, either when the bird was foraging on the seabed or, perhaps, mistaking them for fish, as they fell from melting icebergs. Recent observed behaviour, however, suggests that the stones are deliberately swallowed. One explanation might be that they are used as a grinding agent for food, in particular the hard exoskeletons of crustaceans. Wordie was of the view that they were there to ballast the bird for diving.

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During the night the ship stopped in an open patch of water to deploy the CTD array. This instrument consists of a group of sensors that are lowered to the seabed by winch to measure electrical [C]onductivity, or salinity, [T]emperature and [D]epth, or water pressure. Added to the CTD probe is a carousel of what are called Niskin bottles, which are basically open tubes that, during the upcast, or recovery leg, are triggered to close at set depths locking in samples of water that can be analysed for biological and chemical activity.

At much the same time nets were lowered to collect phytoplankton and zooplankton. The biologist showed me the sample as they removed it from the nets, and, judging by the smiles on their faces they were well pleased.

We also tested the doors ship’s moon pool, an opening through the bottom of the vessel that, even in rough conditions or ice, gives us protected access to the sea below.

During the late afternoon we had our first sight of land and by 1900 hrs we were abreast Joinville and Dundee Islands which are just to the north of the very tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. In seas full of big bergs we dodged our way down the east coast of the Peninsula and by 2330 hrs were off Snow Hill and Seymour Islands. We should reach A-68 the day after tomorrow, but first we will have to stop for sea trials and calibration exercises.

Flurries left our decks covered in snow. Noonday position 63 38.3 S, 052 36.0 W