The emperor penguin
'Edinburgh to the Antarctic'
by William Burn-Murdoch
(Whaling expedition on Balaena 1892-93)
'We caught an Emperor penguin this evening. I was on deck and enjoying the quiet and beauty of the white night when we saw it. The decks are quiet through the night watches; the crew walk quietly, and talk in hushed voices, partly subdued by the queer, still feeling round us, and partly from the reason that if they did make a noise, the watch below would turn out to know the reason why. Just as I was going to turn in, I spotted him on a piece of snow within two or three hundred yards. I was anxious to make a drawing from an Emperor penguin, so went aft, and let the mate know, and he ordered away a boat. The penguin was standing in the middle of a round pan of snow-ice about 50 yards in diameter, with a hummock at one side. We rowed up to this and put two men behind the hummock, and then rowed round to the other side, where three of us landed and spread out. Then we all five advanced, closing in with the penguin as centre of our circle. He got upon a mound of snow as we approached, and only looked slightly anxious as we drew in; then, evidently thinking that his position was dangerous, he tried to get away. He slid down the mound of snow on his breast, puddling away with his flippers and feet. One of our party made a successful rush over a hard piece of snow in pursuit, and fell on the bird and embraced it, and the penguin looked quite shocked, and threw him off with a sort of hitch with its shoulders; then it got up and stood on its feet again, and looked at us calmly as we struggled after it through the soft snow.
'When we got near it again, five of us made a rush at it, and the bo'sun got in first, and scragged it with both hands round its neck. The two rolled over together on the snow, and the penguin freed its neck and began to let drive with its beak at the bo'sun's head, but missed, fortunately. It had no chance, however; we fell on it altogether and made it ' have down.' Its strength astonished us. One man held its neck, other two got hold of a flipper apiece, and two others held the legs. With all our strength we could scarcely keep hold of it; and yet it did not seem to be in the least flurried, or put out-merely moved its flippers slowly, and drew up and extended its short legs, but that nearly twisted our arms off. It was too difficult to carry it to the boat this way, so we strapped him round the middle, with his flippers down by his side. We used the bo'sun's belt- a broad affair with a big brass buckle, and hauled till the penguin collapsed like a Gladstone bag. Then we made another belt fast round his short legs, and stood up and drew a breath of relief, and so did the penguin- a long sigh from the bottom of its chest, and the buckle burst, and it got up and hobbled away with the belt still round its legs; it actually hobbled with dignity. Then we all sat on it again without any ceremony, for we were angry-the penguin remained calmly dignified- and fastened him up with some fathoms of whale-line that happened to be in the boat, lashed him from his bill to his toes all the way down, with marline hitches, like a roll of beef, and carried him to the boat and dropped him in the line-chest. There he freed one flipper just to show what he could do if he tried, but made no other effort to escape.
'On deck the penguin preserved his sphinx-like dignity under very novel and trying circumstances. All the men stood round him, and marvelled at his strange, bulky form; but he did not take the least notice and there was a strange, faraway look in his little black eye, as if he saw right back to the days when these white shores were clad with the verdure of the tropics and there were no glaciers on the black rocks. Later... it was thought the penguin would be in our way on deck, or we would find ourselves in its way, which would have been worse, so it was condemned to death.'
Previous Contents Next