Happy World Penguin Day 2018!

So far 2018 has been a good year for penguins — a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands, thanks to a drone that was able to find them. This is fantastic news for Adélies, whose populations have been in serious decline on the western Antarctic peninsula, but it doesn’t mean we can breathe easily and assume they’ll be okay. Adélies need ice to survive, and they eat mostly krill — two things that are in danger of disappearing due to climate change and overfishing.

Yet the Adélie penguins, whose total population is about 4 million pairs, are certainly doing well compared to other species. The yellow-eyed penguin population is estimated to be only 2,000 pairs, and numbers for the Fiordland-crested penguins are only 1,500 pairs. Both of these species live in New Zealand.

According to one study, the king penguins — who are widespread, from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic — are being forced to travel farther for food, which means that their chicks will be left on shore to starve (penguin chicks have thick, downy fluff until they fledge, preventing them from foraging for themselves until their waterproof feathers come in).

What can we all do to help penguins?

  • Give up eating seafood, or at least try cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.

Meet the rockhopper penguin

After meeting the Fiordland-crested penguin last year in New Zealand, we couldn’t wait to meet more of these crested birds, who are so different from the “classic-looking” Antarctic penguins we first fell in love with and who populate the pages of My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail.

The southern rockhoppers can be found in many places, among them the Falkland Islands, which is where we met them a few weeks ago. And we feel very fortunate to have been able to see them, as their populations have declined more than 30 percent over the past four decades, particularly in the Falklands.

You can see in the photo below how they get their name — these rockhoppers share a colony with the black-browed albatross (whose fluffy chicks you can see in the foreground), and as you can see this colony is very (very) high up from the water where penguins spend most of their time.

Yet the rockhoppers have little trouble navigating this terrain — as you’ll see in the video below, they are actually pretty good at climbing.

Rockhopper penguins nest amid the tussock grass, and their albatross friends offer a lot of help when it comes to shooing away the predatory skuas. Unfortunately, these gorgeous creatures are categorized with the IUCN as “threatened,” with the major threats being global warming and the fishing industry. If you’re a fan of penguins, do what you can to combat climate change, and skip the fish at mealtimes … the more of us who help, the better the chance they’ll have to survive.

Meet the yellow-eyed penguin

When John and I went to the southern tip of New Zealand hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare, endangered yellow-eyed penguin (the Maori name is hoiho), we would’ve been happy for even a brief glimpse. These penguins are not only among the rarest on earth — there are only an estimated 4,000 left in the world — they are also very shy.

Yet our willingness to sit quietly for hours in the cold — and, often, rain — paid off when we were able to witness these gorgeous birds coming ashore to feed their chicks.

Very unfortunately, the penguins are endangered in part because humans ignore the signs around their nesting sites and walk across the paths that the penguins take to reach their nests. If a penguin comes ashore and finds humans in its way, it will return to sea, leaving its chicks hungry.

We spoke at length to a wonderful naturalist who was there on behalf of the Department of Conservation, volunteering his time for hours every night to help ensure the penguins have a safe path to get to their chicks. Nevertheless, we witnessed several occasions on which he asked visitors not to cross the paths, explaining that to do so would endanger the lives of these very rare birds … and then watched as these people went right ahead anyway, disregarding the naturalist’s pleas to help protect the birds. It was astonishing, and more than a little depressing; it would take so little so help save these birds, but many of the tourists couldn’t be bothered.

Upon returning home, we got in touch with the Southland District Council and the South Catlins Charitable Trust to voice our concerns, and we received a warm response back, both sharing our concerns and outlining new initiatives that are being planned to help protect these penguins. Of course, the birds have other threats — among them, fishing, climate change, and ocean pollution — but the good news is that these are things we can all do something about, wherever we may live.

As you can see from these photos, all taken by John, the yellow-eyed penguins are uniquely beautiful, with their yellow eyes and the glowing yellow feathers around them, and they make their homes in the rainforesty scrubs and grasses off the shore, usually walking across tide pools and up steep rock embankments to get to their nests. We do hope to return to this area one day, and we hope to find many more yellow-eyed penguins, instead of fewer.

An interview with Among Animals contributor Mary Akers

An interview with Among Animals contributor Mary Akers (“Beyond the Strandline”)
by Jennifer Hartsock

Q: Mary, many of your works portray personal transformations reflected by the ocean. Does your advocacy for the ocean inspire most of your creative writing?

A: Thanks for this interview, Jennifer. I appreciate the chance to talk about my work. For my most recent book, Bones of an Inland Sea, all of the stories were inspired by the ocean. They were inspired equally by my great love of the ocean and by my great fear of it. And anyone who knows Mother Ocean well enough to love her, live near her, or make a living off her, also has a healthy respect for her capricious and brutal indifference to the whole of humankind. I do have another as-yet-unpublished book—a novel—that also has a great deal of ocean-advocacy at its core, but over the whole of my career, I would have to say I have mostly just written about the things that haunt me. Things that stay with me and won’t leave me alone. Writing is my way of processing and bringing order to the chaos in my mind. The big picture things, the things I just can’t seem to wrap my head around? Writing helps me find a calm place to stand in the middle of the thorniest moral debates.

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Q: Do you have a formula for developing characters or themes, or do they develop themselves as you write?

A: I would have to say that I most often start with a voice. Even if I have a rough idea of how I want a story to unfold, of what events I want to occur and what emotions I want to explore, I still don’t really feel like I’m writing until I find a voice to tell the story. In “Beyond the Strandline” I knew early on that I wanted a cranky narrator—prickly enough that readers might not like him at first. I also wanted to explore some of the motivations behind animal stewardship and the various ways we interact with the natural world. Walt didn’t start out rescuing dolphins. He started out capturing them and training them. Only with time was he able to work his way around to understanding their needs and seeing them as individuals worthy of saving and of freedom.

Q: “Beyond the Strandline” exercises many themes; for example, control verses helplessness. Walt wavers between finding control in sexual relations and yearning to return to a time—prompted by the ocean—when he was with his wife. Can you explain his struggle between his animalistic needs and acting humane?

A: Actually, I spent the whole of this story trying to show Walt’s (and by extension OUR) struggles in an intrinsic, subtle way, so rather than answer your question directly, I’ll explain by way of a detour. I like for readers to come to their own conclusions about what they read in my work. When it comes to interpretation, I believe that what the reader brings to the table is just as important as what the writer brings and as a reader myself, I’m fairly put off by didactic writing in fiction. But…if I can use a story to slowly reshape a reader’s thoughts, to educate him and make him look at the world in a slightly different way, then I feel like I’ve succeeded at my job.

I’ve always admired the story as a subversive, subliminal, teaching tool. Parables, fairy tales, even neighborhood gossip—they are all just stories that teach us something about life and about living, without being too didactic. Stories are an organic way to explore the morals of various difficult situations and thereby influence thought. Storytelling has even helped us evolve as a species. “Don’t eat that!” “Be a good Samaritan.” “Fly too close to the sun and your feathers catch on fire.” What is Little Red Riding Hood, after all, but an admonition against talking to strangers? Or the Three Little Pigs but a story to tell us to be careful where and with whom we take shelter?

Q: Another theme suggests dolphin herders in Japan are comparable to human slavers. Can you give a little background on how you developed this connection?

A: Sure. The more I learned about the practice of capturing dolphins for swim-with programs, aquariums, educational purposes, and even therapeutic uses, the more appalled I became. The parallels came quite quickly, actually. Dolphins are extremely social, highly intelligent, playful mammals who live in tight-knit family groups. And we humans intrude into their world, violently rip them from their home and family, sell them (for great sums of money) into unpaid service against their will, keep them in appalling conditions (a tiny liquid box where they are fed dead fish) which reduce both their quality of life and life expectancy. This is done simply to serve, entertain, and (most of all) make money for us. Sure sounds like slavery to me.

Q: “Beyond the Strandline” also deals with end of life rights for both humans and non-humans. What can you tell us about Walt’s inner struggle with his wife’s condition and his dolphin counterparts?

A: The emotional turning point for me comes when Walt learns that the other two dolphins (who had been staying with Lulu, the younger dolphin) decide to swim away. Many times apparently healthy dolphins beach themselves and die and we don’t know why. Often they are staying with a more obviously sick or injured dolphin and the healthy appear to become casualties simply because they don’t want to leave their fellow pod members. In this case, when Walt sees those two still-healthy dolphins choosing life over death, it flips a switch in his brain and gives him permission not only to say good-bye to his wife, but to say hello to what will be the rest of his life without her in it.

Q: Your new collection, Bones of an Inland Sea, is comprised of many short stories close to your heart and professional work. Do you find it helpful to establish a certain distance from your stories—perhaps when writing from a male perspective or a devastating tsunami in Thailand?

A: A degree of distance is always good for me, and I suspect it is for most authors. If we’re too close to something we want to write about, it runs the risk of becoming preachy, or overly sentimental, or a cranky rant, or just simply boring. I enjoy doing research about a place I’ve never been or writing from a male point-of-view. It forces me to look at the world in a different way—to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” if I am allowed to quote Emily Dickinson. It’s good to get out of one’s own head, and for me, writing from a very different point-of-view is rather like the excitement I feel when hanging around with toddlers. Everything in their world is new and if I look at it through their eyes, I get a fresh, exciting perspective on, say, a purple-striped lizard threading his way through the ivy on a cinderblock wall. Everything is magical to a child…and what a gift if we can soak up a little bit of that magic just by entering their world for a spell.

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PDX is helping to keep plastic bottles in check

I loved being in the Portland, Oregon, airport last week and being able to refill my aluminum water bottle at this handy fountain.

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As most of us who carry our own bottles know, it can be rather messy to refill them at normal drinking fountains (and, having to be held at those awkward angles, they never seem to fill all the way, do they?).

This is the first time I’ve seen one of these nifty fountains (I know, I don’t get out much), but I hope to see many, many more in the future. Among the best things about it is seeing the real impact of using one’s own water bottle as opposed to buying yet another plastic one…

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