Scientists discover colony of penguins in the Antarctic, make first human contact

Nadine Kalinauskas

A team of scientists in the Antarctic recently made the first human contact with a colony of more than 9,000 Emperor penguins.

"You can approach them," expedition leader Alain Huburt told National Geographic. "When you talk to them, it's like they are listening to you."

"Three members of the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica team have the honour of being the first humans to have visited and photographed a newly-discovered 9,000-strong colony of emperor penguins on Antarctica’s Princess Ragnhild Coast," the International Polar Foundation reported.

Researchers first spotted the colony of metre-tall penguins using satellite imagery — they spotted penguin poo, actually — and recorded their findings in a 2009 paper.

The colony's existence remained unconfirmed, however, until expedition leader Alain Hubert, station chief mechanic Kristof Soete and Swiss mountain guide Raphael Richard visited the colony in early December 2012.

"I knew from last year's satellite study that there could potentially be an emperor colony east of Derwael ice rise. Because we were operating not far from this the satellite location, I decided to force the way and try to access to this remote and unknown place. The surprise was even more than all I could have expected or dreamed about: I realised while counting the penguins that this was a very populated colony," said Hubert, who was part of an International Polar Foundation team supporting scientific research on the Derwael Ice Rise about 50 km away from the colony.

"It was almost midnight when we succeeded in finding a way down to the ice through crevasses and approached the first of five groups of more than a thousand individuals, three quarters of which were chicks. This was unforgettable moment!"

Hubert's team is studying the rate of the loss of ice and aim to improve comprehension of ice-shelf-flow dynamics.

The researchers hope the penguins' numbers and colony locations will help tell them how the birds are coping with climate change.

"They are quite clever, these animals," Hubert said of the newly discovered colony's location, top an underwater rift where sea ice is less likely to melt.

See the team's photographs of the penguin colony here.