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Emperor Penguin Gives U.S. Scientist an Eyeful; 'Little Fear of Humans' News Service
December 13, 2006 14:09 EST

ROSS ISLAND, Antarctica -- Environmental policies prohibit scientists at McMurdo Station, the largest U.S. science base in Antarctica, from actively seeking the companionship of Emperor or Adelie penguins.

The general rule is: "If the animals are reacting to you, you're too close."

But if a curious penguin makes the first move -- no problem.

Saturday marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann and her team headed onto the sea ice near Ross Island to catch samples of Antarctic fish and operate an underwater, under-ice robot.

Hofmann is an experienced Antarctic hand from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She saw a small dot about a half-mile away, which she correctly guessed was a lone penguin.

Hofmann remained still on the ice before slowly dropping to her knees, wondering if the bird would approach. Within a minute or so, the bird dropped down on its feathered belly and started sliding toward the scientist.

The bird, a big Emperor penguin, tobogganed to within about 20 feet of Hofmann, then stood on its leathery feet and waddled even closer. It stopped about 8 feet away, as if to get a better look.

Penguins have no natural predators on land and have little fear of humans, Hofmann said.

This Emperor showed no fear as it preened its feathers, flapped its stumpy wings, gave a few gutteral cries and turned around several times, as if modeling in some surreal Antarctic fashion show.

The Antarctic's largest bird seemed to understand that its snowy breast, glossy black back and wings and a patch of shaded sunset yellow-orange near its throat made it a sight to behold.

Later in the day, near a few fishing holes drilled through the ice to collect specimens, a pair of smaller Adelie penguins, also out foraging on a brilliantly sunny spring day, came into view. What caught the eye was their rolling gait, a bit like a tired human two-year-old's.

They did not venture as close as the Emperor penguin, but did not stray from their course, despite human observers.