Working on the highway

All colonies have a highway (or several) to the sea, like this one at Salisbury Plain. They use this route to the sea and it is important not to disrupt it: penguins have right of way on their commute. The chinstraps, like those at Half Moon Bay, like their rocky, higher nests free of snow at egg-laying time when the lower beaches are covered. They hop, waddle, glide, march up and down, flopping on their tummies for a rest when the hill gets too much. Coming down, the bellyflop starts a glide, momentum managed and steered by their wings

King penguins walking to the sea at Salisbury Plain in South Georgia
Nesting site of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica

Despite being short and flight-useless, those wings are tough. The Half Moon Bay highway leads along a beach for about 0.5km then up a steep rock incline for a while, took a short, flatter stretch on the contour (the human desire line) then up across a much steeper slope to the pinnacles. Incidentally, this picture of our landing there a fortnight earlier on 15 March reminds me again how balmy our time in South Georgia was by comparison.

The king penguins at Salisbury Plain have a comparatively short, straight line to the sea, which at this time is snow-free. But they complicate matters by having a minor road along the ridge of the shingle bank. The colony itself stretches back to the hills in a big rocky valley between the green tussac-carpeted slopes. From a distance you can spot concentric circles around an open area not unlike a city plaza. I am sure it shifts and changes, but we were not there long enough to study it.

The hills come down to the large plain about 2km long and may o)5km wide in places. Beneath the slopes, the plain is wet and luscious with moss, laced with the lakes and streams of meltwater spread across the beach pebbles and glacial leavings. Further back moraine-dirt lies thinly over the ice itself.

Between the lakes and streams the pebbles bump up to a ridge lying parallel to the sea edge. It’s not high, maybe 5m. The pebbles themselves are beautiful. Big or tiny, washed to flatness by sea and snow, veined in endless delicate patterns by quartz. I was told by a geologist crew-member that these are very old rocks, folded sedimentary and metamorphic layers, compressed by the great heat and pressure of the magma meniscus deep inside the planet. The quartz does not mix in but remains in these details, lines of braid wrapping through the grey-black stone.

The pebble ridge steps down to the sea in two or three big shelves, each one deeper in pebbles before the rock beneath and the stones themselves getting bigger till the waves cover the black land to wash the slabbed doorstep of the plain.

We enjoyed amazing weather. The sea was flat and clear as the proverbial mirror, but opaque, a gray/white/blue that offered small clue to what lay beneath until kelp leaves waved upwards like brown flotsam going nowhere. Or a penguin’s head, a seal’s back or (but not for us ) a whale fin appears. The morning fog had lifted a bit though the peaks were still hiding, leaving the rocks and islets strewn across this glossy surface, edges sharply defined in the hyper-reality of southern light.

penguin looking round in the sea at Salisbury Plain, South Georgia

Where we came in, across this flat, swell-less of sea, one wave of surf skittered over the last big step down under the level water. It was so warm and sunny that we shed hats and gloves and walked barefaced. (Indeed, some brave souls went further, but more of that tomorrow.) The penguin highway is mostly a straight line from colony to the water. At the western edge, though, some shamble through the shallow lake as if to enjoy a briny footbath before the hunt.

Penguin highway through lake at Salisbury Plain
Penguins out for a stroll at Salisbury Plain

Many spread out along the water line towards the northwest, some marching on until they reach the little headland about 1.5km along the shingle. Heading back, quite a few take the high road along the ridge top, or one of the seaward shelves, often in pairs. Maybe the ridge acts like a pier, a place for courting couples or old friends, out for a chat and a stroll. Or even a pair who for a day or two can congratulate themselves on a satisfactory fledging before heading to sea for the winter.

Again, penguins are all around us. Washing, flopping down, getting up, flapping their wings to the sun, snapping at each other in brisk territorial squabbles. The long, sharp beaks are at every angle, wide open, snapped shut, reaching for a sky or probing under feathers at a sudden itch.

View of king penguin colony at Salisbury Plain

They are curious birds, interested in their environment. Any black, yellow or orange kit is particularly fascinating. If you sit still on the beach with bright colours on, the penguins are immediately interested, stopping their business to take a good look. That gorgeous colouring is basically sexy, and has a wide spectrum in the eyes of the penguin.

penguins investigating bright clothing at Salisbury Plain

Penguins like to watch, responding only a little bit to other species while mostly just working on avoidance. Bustling along the sea’s edge they will stop to wait for you to get out of the way. Or they will bob up and down in the water to get a good view of events. And they scream indiscriminately if they feel their personal space (variable from 1m to 10m) is threatened. Not much more, not like the hide-and-seek, the playfulness of the fur seals. The penguin is too busy and too dignified for their antics.

Salisbury Plain is a penguin Riviera. They spread out along the beach for all the world like a busy Italian resort, scolding and napping, eating and playing together before setting off on the commute back to the nest.

king penguins along the beach at Salisbury Plain
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