"Kings are like stars. They rise and they set, they have the worship of the world, but no repose."
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
It's a Sunday at Kildalkey Bay and there's a cool, crisp breeze curling in from the ocean as the waves lap languidly at the shore. The ebb and flow of a benign continuum? It must be. I watch and listen, hypnotised, as cobbles are swept down and out, and up and over each other in a tranquil monotony, joined every so often by a few returning kings.
The salty air swirls through me in a wonderful way, invigorating a sense of nostalgia. The sun sits in the sky to the west, smiling large, as the penguins fill the air with a bustling cacophony of whistles and trumpets. It's a packed day at the beach and I'm staring straight into their lives, trying to understand.
Life as a king penguin is rather harsh. They’re continually exposed to wind, rain, snow and ice pellets and the only form of shelter is to huddle together. Individuals spend days and sometimes weeks at sea diving to great depths in search of squid and lantern fish, whilst trying to avoid the menacing jaws of killer whales and seals.
On land they’re a bit safer, but not completely. Giant petrels often storm into the colonies with their wings spread wide looking for weak or injured individuals and vulnerable chicks. The penguins scatter in fright and try to maintain a safe distance, which can sometimes lead to interesting patterns in the colony.
King penguins are asynchronous breeders, which means they don’t follow the same breeding cycles, and at Marion Island they lay eggs anytime between November and March. Whilst one parent heads out to sea to forage, the other keeps the egg balanced on its feet and tucks it into a brood pouch where it is kept nice and warm. The parents take turns to incubate the egg and after about fifty days a little brown chick breaks through the shell and lets out its first few chirps. The parent on duty feeds the chick every so often by regurgitating stored fish and squid.
During this stage the chick is extremely vulnerable as giant petrels and skuas patrol the colony looking for distracted parents. When a chick reaches an age where it is more capable of fending for itself, both parents go to sea and return every now and then to provision their chick. While their parents are away they gather in large crèches and stand around all day sleeping and whistling. Every so often a chick bursts out in a fit of energy and runs around like mad flapping its flippers and bumping into anything in its path. It's hilarious.
It’s quite remarkable how the parents find their chicks when they return to the colonies. No matter how much they sound the same to us, each parent can recognise the whistle of its chick, and vice versa. The parent lets out a soft cooing sound that can be audible at a great range whilst the chick lets out a three note whistle that varies in amplitude and frequency if it hears its parent. When they finally find each other in the colony the parent lets out a loud polysyllabic trumpeting and to confirm their bond the parent wanders off into the colony while the hungry little chick follows suit, whistling away.
Despite the harsh world in which they live, the king penguin population at Marion Island has been fairly stable over the last few decades and hasn’t shown any signs of rapid decline like many other penguin species have. The last census done during the incubating period estimated a total of 65000 pairs on the island, so counting them this summer is going to be quite interesting.
“A crown is merely a hat that lets the rain in.”
- Frederick the Great of Prussia
"Now let us sing, long live the King."
- William Cowper