UPDATE: Cliff jumping – An extraordinary dare for Emperor penguin chicks | Polarjournal
Around 700 Emperor penguin chicks crowd the edge of the ice shelf in Atka Bay. If they want to get food, they have no choice but to jump. Unique footage document this extraordinary behavior for the first time. Photo: Screenshot National Geographic / Bertie Gregory

Documentary filmmaker Bertie Gregory was the first to capture the bold leaps of Emperor penguin chicks from high ice cliffs in unique drone footage for National Geographic.

Anyone who has ever stood on the 10-meter board in a swimming pool can imagine how emperor penguin chicks must feel on a 15-meter-high ice shelf edge that they have to overcome. Emperor penguins normally breed on fast ice – sea ice that is connected to the ice shelf – and from there a jump into the water is no more than a small hop for the chicks.

But what documentary filmmaker Bertie Gregory observed and filmed with a drone for National Geographic in Atka Bay near the German Neumayer Station at the beginning of January during his shoot for the new documentary Secrets of the Penguins is hard to believe. Around 700 penguin chicks, still wearing the last of their baby fluff over their new adult plumage, march along the edge of the ice shelf, stop at one point and stare indecisively into the depths. They have to jump if they want to learn how to swim and find food. But who will be the first to take the plunge?

“Honestly, I was in awe and I couldn’t believe [National Geographic, editor’s note] caught this footage. Incredible. I would have guessed the chicks didn’t have any other choice but to jump but I’m amazed they were able to record it, since taking that big of a leap would reasonably take a lot of deliberation,” Michelle LaRue, associate professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, tells us in an email.

This is not the first time that emperor penguin chicks have jumped off a high ice cliff, but it is the first time that this unusual behavior has been filmed. More than 30 years ago, Gerald Kooyman, professor emeritus of biology and physiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanagrophy in San Diego, who studied emperor penguins in the Antarctic for more than 50 years, observed a similar event, as he describes in his book Journeys with Emperors.

In the recent past, satellite images of this ice shelf edge have occasionally revealed tracks of penguins heading north, Peter Fretwell, a scientist at the British Antarctic Survey, told National Geographic.

These emperor penguin chicks still receive their food from their parents and know nothing of the vast ocean in which they will have to forage for themselves just a few weeks later. Photo: Michael Wenger

But how did the chicks end up on this high ice shelf in the first place? When the parents of the chicks returned to the colony at the beginning of the breeding season, they apparently used a shallow spot along the ice shelf edge to get onto the ice shelf. This route was apparently not an option for the five to six-month-old chicks.

Michelle LaRue explains it to Polar Journal: “I think what happened is that these chicks set off to the north from their colony, which was located up on the ice shelf, not on the sea ice. This ice cliff, I suspect, is directly north of where they were… and I think the chicks simply got perhaps more than they bargained for when they got to the edge [of the ice shelf, editor’s note]. But, remember this is the first time they had ever seen the ocean so it’s not like they had an expectation of what jumping into the water is ‘supposed’ to be like, the way adult emperor penguins might ‘know better’.”

When asked if this unusual behavior of the chicks is related to the sea ice cover, she tells us: “No, I don’t think it would have anything to do with the sea ice. The chicks in this case (if it is true that they were born and raised on the ice shelf and not on sea ice) were probably completely unaware of the existence of sea ice, honestly. […] If it is true that there was less ice in the area when they fledged… in this very specific case anyway… that probably worked to their advantage since it meant they could jump from the cliff into the ocean instead of landing on ice. If there was ice below the cliff I can’t imagine that would have ended well for the chicks. They would have had two options: find another way to the ocean, which would have taken quite a while to figure out, if they were able to figure it out; or jump and land on ice. Neither of those scenarios would be good.”

Peter Fretwell fears that more and more emperor penguins could be forced to breed on the ice shelf in the future as the sea ice recedes. “It really depends on us,” he told Polar Journal in an earlier interview about emperor penguins, referring to our will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Julia Hager, Polar Journal AG

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