Where to capture Adélie penguins?
I can answer that question. I am a U.S. Naval Academy class of 1962 graduate and ex-member of Operation Deep Freeze, which supported the U.S. Antarctic Research Project (USARP). After completing my naval aviation officer training in 1963 at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, I was assigned as a navigator with Air Development Squadron Six (VX-6) from summer 1963 to summer 1965. During that time, I made two tours of approximately seven months each to Antarctica.
Operation Deep Freeze
I joined VX-6 in late spring 1963 at its U.S. base, Naval Air Station Quonset Point, Rhode Island. The squadron had a variety of aircraft, including four LC-130-F Hercules, a C-121J Super Constellation, a C54Q Spymaster, and two C47 Dakotas. The Hercules and Dakotas were equipped with skis, which allowed landings on the packed snow throughout the vast Antarctic continent. There also were helicopters delivered to McMurdo Station by ship, including a CH-19E Chickasaw and a HU1-B.
This part of the story took place during Operation Deep Freeze ’65, from September 1964 to March 1965. My crew departed Quonset Point on 19 September in LC-130F 320 and headed south through South America. The objective was to do some research flights out of Punta Arenas, Chile, over the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches up toward South America and is “only” 600 miles from the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. After operating out of Chabunco Airport for a week, we headed south from Punta Arenas on 1 October at 11:30 a.m. local time for McMurdo Station, making the first flight in history from South America to McMurdo. We arrived at Williams Field, McMurdo, at 3:00 p.m. local time on 2 October, my birthday.
On 30 September of the previous year, our overall commander, Rear Admiral James R. Reedy, U.S. Naval Academy class of 1933, Commander, Naval Support Force, Antarctica, led an historic first flight by LC-130F 318 accompanied by LC-130F 320 from Malan Airfield, Cape Town, South Africa, to McMurdo Station. The flight was 4,700 miles and 14 hours and 26 minutes, including a pass over the geographic Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station to drop a bag of mail to the crew that had wintered over. From this and many other successes during his command, the Reedy Glacier, descending from the polar plateau to the Ross Ice Shelf, was named for the Admiral.
One of the many highlights from my two years with Operation Deep Freeze was a mission to capture approximately 40 live Adélie penguins from the Russian Station at Mirny, then a small base in Queen Mary Land on the Antarctic coastline along the Davis Sea, in the direction of South Africa. The penguins were to be transported back to the base at McMurdo Station and then on to the United States.
There are 18 species of penguins, all found in the Southern Hemisphere. Six are found in parts of Antarctica, but only two species—the Emperor and Adélie—make it their true home. Both species nest in rookeries, largely based on rocky outcrops, along the entire periphery of the continent. Our objective was a rookery of Adélie penguins near Mirny Station.
During this project, I became acquainted with the work of Dr. Richard Lee Penney, a research zoologist from Johns Hopkins University at the time, who had been coming to Antarctica since 1958. He performed his first experiment with Adélie penguins in 1959 and discovered that they could find their way home even if seemingly completely lost. During his experiments, he released five penguins near McMurdo Station, 2,400 miles from their home nesting site. Three arrived back in eight months, averaging about eight miles a day. Adélie penguins do not fly and when on land are said to waddle, a relatively slow process.
The purpose of capturing the penguins at Mirny was to further Dr. Penney’s experimental work on determining how penguins navigate. Given that they seem able to use the position of the sun, it was believed they had a timing mechanism in their brains. At the time, we speculated that the secret might even aid humans navigating in space.
Since his first experiment, Dr. Penney had started outfitting the birds with a special radio transmitter designed at Johns Hopkins to track them. When released, the penguins consistently started in a direction in relation to their home rookery, although they seemed unable to proceed when the sun was hidden. If located southeast or southwest of the home rookery, the penguins would walk due north instead of straight for home, and on reaching the sea would turn left or right, depending on the direction of the rookery. Obviously, Adélie penguins are swift swimmers and make much faster progress in the sea.
Our expedition began at McMurdo Sound, the principal U.S. base in Antarctica, on 5 November 1964. Admiral Reedy joined us for the adventure. The Russians at Mirny base had agreed to cooperate. The gear was loaded on board our ski-configured LC-130F Hercules, and the airplane roared off along the skiway, one of two at Williams Field on the Ross Ice Shelf, near McMurdo Station. There was also a prepared iceway at Williams Field, which allowed planes without skis to land. The four ski-abled Hercules in our squadron were capable of landing and taking off on almost any snow-packed surface in Antarctica—most of the enormity of the Antarctic plateau, which is mostly at a 10,000 foot altitude, as well as at innumerable sites on the coastal periphery, including ice shelves.
Our arrival at Mirny from McMurdo Sound was complicated by a diminishing blizzard, but we managed to land safely on the skiway. We were then warmly greeted by our Russian hosts and were taken to an entryway on the surface of the camp. The passageway we entered led down a stairway to what seemed to me like a reinforced Victorian house buried in the snow. The stairway first opened to an attic space and then down to rooms well below the surface. There was a recreation room with a billiards table, and I played and won one rack of balls. As I am not that talented at billiards, I suspected my Russian opponent let me win. We were then offered an excellent meal, including vegetables and fruit preserves in Mason-like jars, which I thought might have been canned by Russian grandmothers in Siberia. I also wondered how the glass jars survived the trip without freezing along the way.
Then the penguin hunt was underway. Our weapons were nets, seemingly modeled after butterfly nets but much stronger. Adult Adélie penguins weigh about 15 pounds. The captured birds were to be transported in specially constructed wooden boxes, about the size of a briefcase, that were meant to somewhat restrict the movement of the birds without harming them. Each box would hold one penguin.
The gear was loaded on board a Russian sled behind a Russian tractor with a Russian driver who headed for the penguins’ nesting site. It felt like an old-fashioned sleigh ride. The base was on the coast, and the trip to the penguins was just a mile or so to a rock island about a mile offshore across the frozen sea. The wind gusts were very strong, up to 50 knots, but the stinging cold of Antarctic air was missing. Before long, hundreds of the birds came into sight. We drove near them and then approached cautiously on foot. We did not want to alarm them for fear they would panic and take to the water en masse.
The hunt turned out easier than expected. The penguins had little fear of humans. They may have interpreted us as a larger penguin species. In any event, we used the nets to capture and fill our quota of 40 birds. They were easy to handle and place in the boxes, but once inside it was clear that not all was well. Although the boxes had a carefully designed hinged cover, the distressed penguins tried to pry open the box tops with their beaks. One bird I captured had snapped his beak and was bleeding profusely down his white front. I convinced Dr. Penney that we should be kind and release the poor creature, and he agreed. The penguin waddled hastily away to a high point of rock and shook with indignation. We subsequently discovered that the beaks were very vascular, and that many of those we captured experienced the same red discoloration of their breasts after trying to escape from their boxes.
Once the hunt was completed, we loaded the boxed birds on the sled and headed back to our airplane. Another storm was in the air, and we wasted no time in saying farewell to our Russian hosts and headed back to Williams Field.
After our return, another group of Adélie penguins was captured at Cape Crozier, which is the most easterly point of Ross Island, where McMurdo Station is situated. The Cape is not far from the Station, and I assume the scientists involved were able to access Cape Crozier using ground vehicles, possibly snowmobiles, but I was not with them.
The population of penguins was cared for in a facility at McMurdo Station until 11 February 1965, when we flew 54 Adélies (10 couples, 6 single adults, and 28 chicks) together with four seals to the United States. Four of the penguins died from overheating when engine trouble at Nandi in the Fiji Islands delayed the flight and forced a return to the Christchurch, New Zealand, airport, at a U.S. Navy warm-weather staging facility for support of the U.S. Antarctic Program.
Once in the United States, the penguins were distributed as follows: 19 to the St. Louis, Missouri, Zoological Garden; 20 to the Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Zoological Garden; and 15 to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, to further Dr. Penney’s research. The four seals—a male and female Weddell seal, and a male and female Crabeater seal—were put on exhibit at the New York Aquarium, Brooklyn, New York.
Our commanding officer of VX-6 at the time, Commander G. R. Kelly, sent us the following “Expression of Appreciation”:
It is with great pleasure that I pass on the appreciation of the New York Zoological Society for the successful and efficient delivery of the Weddell Seals to New York.
Both Commander, U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica, and the Chief of Naval Operations have added their congratulations.
The U.S. Navy made its final flight at Christchurch on 16 February 1999, ending a 44 year era of naval aviation in support of Antarctic exploration and science.