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Under Mount Melbourne: An Excerpt from End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica, by Peter Matthiessen

Soon the black headland of glacier-capped Cape Washington juts from the mist, and numerous snow petrels circle the ship, distressed by its intrusion. The small white birds touch lightly down and float like bits of ice on the black sea.

Groups of emperor penguins are turning up in the open water, on small floes, and finally in a long black crescent fringing the edge of the fast ice—the heavy older ice that does not drift away on tides and currents, having become fastened or fast to the land, as in "stuck fast." Fast ice on the coast, usually in the shelter of a cliff or headland, and often miles from open water, is the habitat required by the only bird species on earth that never sets foot on land at any point in its life cycle.

Files of birds appear on the snowy ice, coming and going from the rookeries, as an outlying colony takes shape under the headland; a mile inland, a broad area of discoloration under the glacier that overflows the inner cape is the main colony. With a flock estimated at 10,000 pairs, Cape Washington is thought to be the largest of the 42 emperor colonies, most of them small, scattered here and there around the enormous circumference of Antarctica.

Everywhere gray woolly young trail restless adults. In neckless penitential plod, eyes cast down in seeming gloom, they seem to dread some future leopard seal or orca. Some are chivvied along well-worn paths leading to and from the water, while others loiter in loose crèches; all perk up at the approach of large, strange upright mammals in red parkas. Though visitors are instructed to keep a discreet distance, the chicks themselves transgress the rule, hurrying forward like windup toys in that stiff penguin toddle, flippers wide as if to welcome a good hug. Some come within 20 feet or so before mystification gets the better of their curiosity; at which point, they inquire about our intentions in a musical three-note chirrup. . . .

End of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica
Peter Matthiessen
National Geographic, $26

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