It's NONFICTION NOVEMBER! Join us for an Antarctic adventure with the Penguin Guy, Guillaume de Remacle! Dive into a world of penguins, breathtaking landscapes, and the secrets of the Southernmost Post Office. Discover the beauties and challenges of Antarctica, the incredible world of these fascinating birds, and how we can all become Antarctic ambassadors. 🐧❄️
Approximate timestamps follow, along with excerpts from the podcast.
[00:41] Dr. Diane introduces her guest, Guillaume (Gui), the "penguin guy."
[00:53] Gui's background and how he became the penguin guy.
Gui initially started his work in Antarctica at Port Lockroy, known as the "penguin station," where he and his team were responsible for welcoming guests, operating the museum, sending postcards, and monitoring a penguin colony's reproduction. Despite lacking a formal background, Gui's passion for animals and nature led him to spend four months counting penguins on a tiny Antarctic island, marking the beginning of his polar expedition career with Albatross Expedition.
Now, I go to Antarctica every winter, and I try to make people aware and in love with penguins during my lectures and talks about penguins and seabirds.
[02:34] How to count a penguin colony, focusing on breeding pairs, eggs, and chicks.
In this part of the podcast episode, Gui explains how he counted penguins in the Antarctic colonies. First, he highlighted that penguins come to land for reproduction, which makes it easier to count them. They build nests and lay eggs, with each nest typically representing a breeding pair. Guillaume primarily focused on a small section of the colony with 70 nests. He would visit these nests every other day to check for eggs. When 90% of the nests had at least one egg, they would proceed to count all the eggs on the entire island. The process was repeated for counting chicks when they hatched. Guillaume shared the secret of how to count eggs and chicks quickly, which involved gently lifting the tail of the adult penguin to observe what was underneath, without causing any disturbance to the penguins.
And once you put them back down, they just do like that and get rid of the snow at the tip of the building. That's it. - Gui, describing how penguins react to the counting process.
[05:04] Differentiating between Gentoo, Adele, and Chinstrap penguins.
[06:01] Characteristics to distinguish these penguin species.
Gui explains the different species of brush-tailed penguins found in Antarctica: Gentoo, Adelie, and Chinstrap penguins. He provides distinctive features to identify each species:
Gentoo Penguins: Black and white with a bright red bill and white patches around the eyes. Gui's favorite (mine too), and known for their intelligence.
Chinstrap Penguins: Completely black and white with a black stripe around their jaw, making them easily recognizable.
Adelie Penguins: Also black and white, they have a blue eye and a pinkish bill. Notable for their long tails (and rock star attitudes) compared to the other species.
So from the distance, from far away, if you only see the back of the penguin, it's a bit hard to tell them apart. But if you see the face, then it's quite easy to tell them apart. - Gui, explaining how to differentiate between penguin species based on their facial features.
[07:04] Gui imitates Gentoo penguin calls.
While living among a vibrant penguin colony in Antarctica, Guillaume experienced the unique soundscape created by these charming birds. You can hear him do the Gentoo call on the podcast (and you can experience it from the video I filmed while in Antarctica as well -- see below).
Living with Penguin Chatter: Gui reminisces about the characteristic sound of penguins and mentions how it became a constant presence during his time on the island.
When you live among a penguin colony -- it was about 1,700 penguins -- you hear that song day and night, all the time. It's cute at the beginning and it gets to be tiring at the end.
Day and Night Sounds: I asked about the penguins' vocalizations and whether they continue throughout the night. Gui shared that penguins have a quieter period during the night, lasting around three to four hours.
They have a kind of quiet nighttime, I would say something around three to four hours where you don't hear much, and then they wake up earlier than us.
Gui also pointed out that penguins are known to use vocalizations to recognize and communicate with one another. They have specific times, like evenings, when they return to the colony, but it's uncertain whether their vocalizations are influenced by sunlight.
They make sounds to recognize each other and to talk basically to each other. So every time a penguin is coming back to the colony, its partner is going to sing to it, more or less, to make sure that he remembers the way to the nest. But we also noticed that around 07:00 p.m., seems like penguins were all coming back to the colony. Whether they were on the nest or not, they would come back to the colony. And around eight, nine p.m., you would have both penguins next to the nest, the one laying down and the one standing next to it. So, yeah, I don't know for sure if all the penguins come back to the colony at night, but there is definitely a time where everything is a bit calm and at peace.
Living in close proximity to a bustling penguin colony gave Gui a firsthand understanding of the soundscape and social behaviors of these fascinating creatures. It's a unique experience that showcases the intricacies of life in Antarctica, both day and night.
[09:10] Monogamy among penguins and their breeding season behaviors.
[10:31] Penguin pairs share responsibility for egg care during the breeding season.
[11:37] The importance of krill in the penguin's diet and its role in the Antarctic food web.
In a fascinating discussion about the breeding and parenting behaviors of penguins, Gui provided insights into the intricate dynamics of these remarkable birds. Here are a few key points and quotes from the conversation. Listen to or watch the podcast for the full discussion.
Gui shed light on the topic of penguin monogamy, explaining that while penguins are often described as monogamous, their monogamy in the wild typically means having one partner during the breeding season. The notion of staying with the same partner for life is quite rare among penguins.
Some of them will stay with the same partner for a while, but with the same partner for life, it’s very rare. Only a few of them do that, but they tend to go back to the same partner for several seasons in a row.
Shared Nesting Responsibilities
Gui provided insights into the shared responsibilities of breeding pairs in caring for eggs during the breeding season. Both adults take turns incubating the eggs and caring for the chicks, with a typical rotation of every 10 to 12 hours for the Gentoo penguins.
Dependency on Krill:
The conversation delved into the importance of krill, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean, in the diets of penguins. Krill depend on the sea ice and the algae that grows under it during the winter. When summer comes, photosynthesis allows the algae and phytoplankton to grow, bringing a lot of food for the krill. Gui emphasized that krill serves as a primary food source for penguins, seals, and whales in Antarctica, with its growth linked to the presence of sea ice.
And the figures are that the krill grow every summer by 360,000,000 tons. It's a lot of shrimps in the water. And everybody is relying on the krill. So it's really the cornerstone of the food web in Antarctica. And penguins are quite dependent on them.
The Gentoo is slightly less dependent on the krill because their ability to dive up to 100 meters deep allows them to also find some fish, whereas the Chinstrap and Adelie have shorter dives and rely almost completely on the krill for food. The availability of krill and the impact of sea ice melt could have significant implications on the penguins in years to come.
This exploration of penguin behaviors and their ecological relationships underscores the unique and fragile nature of Antarctica's ecosystem and the critical role that krill plays in sustaining it. It highlights the importance of understanding and conserving these remarkable creatures and their environment.
[13:23] Observations of climate change impacts in Antarctica, including variations in snowfall, sea ice, and penguin colony movements.
[18:37] Discussion about research and observations on ships during Antarctic summer months, including monitoring plastic in the water and penguin colonies.
[20:17] The role of IAATO in regulating tourism to minimize impact on Antarctica, including disinfection measures.
[22:58] Gui's perspective on the importance of raising awareness and protecting Antarctica for future generations.
Gui discussed his observations and concerns regarding climate change and its impact on Antarctica during his five years of working in the region. Here are key points and quotes from this part of the conversation:
Variability in Weather and Precipitation:
Gui highlighted the variability in weather and precipitation patterns in Antarctica over the years. He mentioned that some years saw almost no snow, while others experienced significant snowfall and rain. This fluctuation has a direct impact on penguins' ability to build nests and reproduce.
Increased precipitation, whether in the form of snow or rain, poses challenges for penguins. They need solid ground to build nests, and excessive snowfall can delay their nesting and egg-laying, which can lead to difficulties in raising their chicks.
So if the snow fall is lasting too long and too far into summer, it means that the penguins can't build a nest before December or January and can't lay the eggs before January or February, which is very late in the season because their whole reproduction cycle must be over before winter sets, before winter arrives. So they're quite timed and the increase of precipitation is changing that a lot. So we've seen bad years for penguins where their chicks were not ready before winter. And also with the increase of precipitation, you have also more snow and more rain coming when the chicks are already born, which make them very wet and they're not super waterproof. So you have a lot of penguin freezing because they are too cold. And that has been an issue that we saw in the past years.
Changes in Sea Ice and Krill Distribution:
Gui mentioned changes in the abundance of sea ice, particularly in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Reduced sea ice has resulted in less krill, which in turn impacts penguin populations. Some colonies have relocated in search of better access to food for their chicks.
There are some colonies where there's no penguins coming anymore because they probably don't have enough access to food during their winter for good reproduction. So there's one Chinstrap colony on Half Moon Island where there is much, much fewer penguins than they used to be back in the days. And whether they will come back or not, we will see in the future. But for the past few years, the colony was almost empty. It doesn't mean they're dead, it just means they relocated and went to a place to reproduce where they had better access to food to make sure they can feed their chicks all along the reproduction season.
Role of Scientific Research:
Gui emphasized that some scientists use the opportunity of Antarctic tourist expeditions to conduct various studies. These studies focus on topics like plastic in the water, the diet of penguins, and the state of the ecosystem.
"As you have those ships going there and everything is paid for, it's quite easy to pull off the logistics of a scientific research using those ships," he said. "With Albatross, we have Danish scientists coming, not every year, but they came already twice while I was there to take some sample in penguin colonies, in penguin guano, to see a bit what was the diet and if there were any evolution in their life. So that was quite interesting. You have monitoring about the krill, the phytoplankton, about the ice, about the whales, about the seals."
Conservation Measures in Tourism:
Gui discussed the importance of responsible tourism in Antarctica. Tourism is regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) to minimize its impact on the continent. Rules include maintaining a safe distance from wildlife and thoroughly disinfecting gear to prevent the introduction of foreign microbes.
What we hope for the people is to enjoy first, but then to be aware of those ecosystem, of how fragile they are. Some would argue that by going there we are already putting them in danger, which in a way is true. But we also know that we only care about what we know and we only protect what we care about. So I think that making sure people get aware of Antarctica, get aware of this absolutely magnificent place, is the best way to protect it in the future.
Gui expressed the hope that tourists, through their visits to Antarctica, can become advocates for the preservation of this pristine environment, as the continent faces potential changes to the Antarctic Treaty in the future. The more people who become engaged and aware of Antarctica's significance, the better its chances of continued protection.
[23:16] A description of a day in the life of a guide in the polar regions, emphasizing the unique experiences and the tranquility of the environment.
[26:46] Gui's favorite travel destinations, including Southeast Asia and the Amazon Rainforest in South America.
[27:49] Advice for individuals interested in becoming guides in polar regions, emphasizing the importance of a passion for nature, people skills, and the ability to operate Zodiacs in various conditions.
Gui shared insights into his life as a polar guide in Antarctica, providing a glimpse into the extraordinary experiences and challenges he encounters.
Life as a Polar Guide:
Gui began by expressing his gratitude for his job and described it as mind-blowing. He acknowledged that there is no typical day, but he offered a glimpse of a day in his life as a polar guide.
First, I would say that it's absolutely amazing and I thank God every day that I get this job, because it's mind blowing. Some people say that if you haven't gone to Antarctica, it's really hard for someone else to describe you what it is to be in Antarctica.
A Day in the Life:
While there are no "typical" days in Antarctica, Gui offered an example of what a day as a polar guide can look like in Antarctica. Often it starts with taking the Zodiac out early for 15 minutes to see what the conditions are and to spot wildlife and ice that might be interesting for the guests.
So I would be alone on my Zodiacs in the middle of nowhere among the ice, penguins and whales. And that's something really nice. It lasts 15 minutes, I think, but that's my freedom of the day.
He would then return to the ship to pick up the guests and explore the area and navigate among the icebergs and the brush ice looking for whales, seals, and penguins. When the Zodiac cruise is down, Gui brings the visitors to the shore, where other expedition guides greet them. He takes a different group out on the Zodiac, while his original guests have a chance to walk around and explore in tightly supervised conditions.
They (guests) will have a chance to get a bit closer to a penguin colony, witness penguin behavior, which is quite funny and interesting and sometimes get a little hike to go on top of a hill to have a nice overview of the area, the bay, all the ice on the sea. It's quite spectacular. I said ice a lot. That's something sure about Antarctica. You need to be fond of ice because you see a lot of it.
Silence and Pristine Beauty:
Gui described the profound silence and pristine beauty of Antarctica. He shared a moving moment when he shut off the boat's engine, and his guests were immersed in the natural surroundings, including the presence of a whale in their midst.
There's one place in particular that I love. It's a small bay with a huge glacier that goes up in the hill. And when you are down there, the bay is quite small. So this glacier has really a huge impact on you, huge strength, and you're in front of it. I switch off my engine and I let my guests just sit in silence, three, four minutes and we look at this glacier. We're looking at the surroundings, being amazed by the beauty of nature, and a whale just blew in the middle of us. We were all in pure silence and the only thing we could hear was the whale popping out of the water in the middle of us. And that was wow. That was really cool. That was really cool.
Traveling Beyond Antarctica:
Gui, a passionate traveler, mentioned his love for exploring new cultures, landscapes, and wildlife. He highlighted his experiences in Southeast Asia and South America and his appreciation for discovering the world's diverse regions.
I just really enjoy exploring and discovering new culture, new landscapes, new animals, new birds.
Becoming a Polar Guide:
Gui offered advice for individuals interested in becoming polar guides. He emphasized the importance of a passion for nature and the ability to connect with people. Practical skills such as operating Zodiac boats and familiarity with the polar environment (and a willingness to learn) are also essential. Some of his colleagues are scientists, who have been studying and working in polar STEM fields for years. Some of the guides Gui works with have spent winters on bases in Antarctica, while others spent several years in South Georgia monitoring fish and their weather marine life.
"I have colleagues who've been diving under the Antarctic continent four years in a row," he said. He emphasized that you don't have to have those types of experiences, noting that he began working in the post office on Port Lockroy.
I would say there's not one way to get to this job. But one thing sure, you need to love nature, people, and the ship because you live with a ship all the time.
Gui's account of life as a polar guide provided an intimate look at the unique experiences and responsibilities that come with the role. His profound connection to Antarctica and its pristine beauty shone through in his descriptions and reflections.
[31:02] Port Lockroy: the southernmost post office in the world and its historical significance.
[32:29] Discussion on the time it takes for postcards sent from Port Lockroy to reach their destinations and the process involved in sending them.
[34:16] Gui's experience of living with three other people on a tiny island in Antarctica for four months and the challenges involved.
Gui shared stories and insights about Port Lockroy, the southernmost post office in the world, and his experiences working there in Antarctica.
Port Lockroy as a Post Office:
Gui explained that Port Lockroy is a unique post office in Antarctica where visitors can purchase postcards, add return Antarctic stamps, and receive a cancellation stamp that reads "Antarctica." They process 19,000 postcards annually.
It's the one place where you can buy your postcards and add the stamp, return Antarctic stamp and get your cancellation stamp where it's written Antarctica. And yeah, that's the only place we can get that.
Port Lockroy has a rich history, transitioning from a scientific research station to a historical site and museum. Visitors can explore the base, which includes artifacts and items dating back to the 1940s.
Sending Mail from Antarctica:
Gui shared insights into the process of sending postcards from Antarctica. Mailbags with postcards are handed over to visiting ships, which must eventually go to the Falkland Islands, the nearest post office, to dispatch the mail. Mail can take anywhere from two weeks to two years to reach its destination.
Basically, we get your postcards, we cancel them, we put them in a mailbag and we give this mailbag to another ship that will come to visit us in the next days."
Occasionally, a bag gets lost or forgotten. Gui recalls a bag that was given to a ship that was supposed to go to the Faukland Islands. When the ship had to cancel their Faukland visit, they dropped the mail bags in South Georgia, where they were forgotten for a year. The following summer season, a ship picked up the mail bags and finally brought them to the Falkland Islands.
So people finally got their mail a year and a half after, something like that. It was a nice surprise, of course, because you don't expect to receive anything at this stage.
Challenges of Island Life:
Gui lived on Port Lockroy with three female colleagues on a small island, about the size of a football pitch, shared with penguins. Challenges included a limited exercise area, bunk beds, and the constant presence of teammates. Nevertheless, he highlighted the strong camaraderie within the team. "The challenge is that you are with three people at all time," he said. "We got along very well. We had an amazing team, honestly, and it was quite easy in the end. People always wonder how you did that, but it was quite easy. It didn't feel like an exercise or like a mission, because we got along so well. It just felt like being with my sisters at night and just enjoying dinner and cooking together, watching movies and going to bed."
Fond Memories of Port Lockroy:
Gui spoke affectionately about his time on the island, despite the challenges. He mentioned that he often returns to Port Lockroy with guests to send postcards but emphasized that he's happy with the experience he had and doesn't want to risk tarnishing it by returning to live there.
Gui's experiences at Port Lockroy provided a unique glimpse into life on a small Antarctic island, where he embraced challenges and formed strong bonds with his colleagues, creating lasting memories of this remarkable place.
[37:56] Gui discusses his current travels and work with his wife as a guide on the ship.
[39:39] Gui's perspective on raising awareness about Antarctica's fragile ecosystem and the importance of taking small steps to mitigate climate change.
[43:01] Dr. Diane concludes the podcast and suggests various picture books about Antarctica and penguins for young explorers.
Gui shared stories about his unique experience of getting married in Antarctica, as well as the significance of the continent's fragility and the importance of understanding its ecosystems.
Getting Married in Antarctica:
Gui and his wife (who is also a polar guide) had a special wedding in Antarctica, specifically at Port Lockroy. While it wasn't an official wedding due to paperwork complexities, the captain performed the ceremony, creating a unique and memorable experience. "To get married surrounded by penguins, that was cool," Gui said.
Working and Traveling Together:
Gui and his wife now work together, both as guides on the same ship. This arrangement allows them to share their love for Antarctica and its unique environment. "She's working with me on the ship as a guide, which is great because I get to share with her all this amazement," he said.
Protecting Antarctica and Its Ecosystems:
Gui emphasized the importance of understanding and protecting Antarctica's fragile ecosystems. He encouraged people to be aware of the potential consequences of global warming, especially the melting of ice and its impact on the continent and its ecosystems.
It's important to be aware of this very specific ecosystem that is very fragile... You never know the impact your actions can have. But if it can have a positive impact, even a small one, I would say do it because you never know, and it can only be for the better.
Gui and Dr. Diane discussed the cumulative effect of individual actions. While individual actions may seem small, collectively, they can make a significant difference, much like drops of water coming together to form an ocean.
If we all take those small steps, we may not live to see what the consequences will be, but we're at least planting seeds for the future and hoping that we're doing the right thing. -- Dr. Diane Jackson Schnoor
Gui's insights shed light on the special moments and responsibilities of working in Antarctica, as well as the importance of raising awareness about the region's unique environment and the need for collective efforts to protect it.
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