Penguins – Spy In The Huddle


As TV Tropes put it, Everything’s Better With Penguins. They are a very popular, and I really like them myself, in fact they’re probably my favourite animal. Why do we generally like penguins so much? Well, they’re cute. They’re also funny. At least they look funny to us, with the way they waddle (or hop in the case of the aptly named Rockhoppers). So a series focusing on penguins was bound to have an audience, especially if that series is narrated by former Doctor Who star David Tennant.

The series is about three different species of penguin in three different locations. Emperor penguins in Antarctica, Rockhopper penguins in the Falklands and Humboldt penguins in Peru. In each location there are secret cameras filming them, and the cameras are hidden in robot penguins. ROBOT PENGUINS! That lets me geek out. I always wanted a robot penguin when I was a kid. Hell, I wouldn’t mind one now. Yes, I know I’m a dork.

Anyway, the robot penguins we had here sometimes looked a bit like the animatronic puppet used to portray the parrot in ’90s CITV series Harry’s Mad. Some were “aquatic versions” in the sea, and looked a bit like one of those swan shaped boats in Alton Towers. Of course they were nothing to be sneered at, the robots could move about a bit and could pick themselves up when they were knocked down. They also did their job in filming some good footage. The robots seemed to convince the penguins anyway. They all appear to accept the penguin robots as just another member of the colony, and don’t seem to mind that they are acting differently from the rest. One male Rockhopper appeared to fancy the Rockhopper robot when his mate was late returning. She did return eventually though, and in jealous rage knocked the Rockhopper robot down. The Rockhopper robot went through a lot it seems, the very last scene showed that it had it’s head knocked off. We also had Rock-Cam which saw one of the Rockhopper penguins hitching a ride on it as it moved.

One of the weirdest moments of the whole series is when the Rockhopper robot ‘lays’ an egg, which is eggcam. The eggcam spends a lot of time rolling around. A caracara catches it and flies away with it allowing us to see “the first ariel of a penguin colony by shot by a flying bird”. It slips from his grasp and some turkey vultures try to eat it. It then rolls away into the nest of a Rockhopper couple who have no eggs and the mother takes it into the nest to try and incubate it. One Emperor penguin who hasn’t a chick of her own tries to ‘adopt’ one of the penguin cams. I felt a bit bad for the penguins in these latter two cases, even though the narration said they aren’t fooled for long.

The programme showed just how well penguins run their lives. With all three of the species shown in this programme we see that parenting duties are shared. Humboldt penguins for example have shifts were one rears the chicks while the other goes for food, as they don’t have to travel as far for food as other penguins do.

The Emperor penguin females lay their egg and pass it over to their mate who incubates it and protects it from the cold while the females go out to sea to feed and collect food. We see one Emperor penguin chick hatch, and the proud dad showing off his chick to another father, the chicks chirping helps that egg to hatch too. (AWWWWWWWW!) The bond between father and chick is incredibly strong by the time the females return, even though they are extremely hungry after spending the Antarctic winter shielding the chick he is reluctant to transfer it back to the mother.

Emperor chicks are shown huddling together for warmth. The ones in the centre are of course the warmest, while the ones on the outside feel the cold. The penguins actually deal with this fairly though, and take turns as to who is where. Everyone will get a chance to be in the centre. They do it a little too well, as the centre sometimes actually gets too hot for them.

The Rockhopper penguins are seen falling off cliffs a lot, but their body fat absorbs the shock, and they don’t seem too bothered by such setbacks and simply shake themselves off and try again. Male Rockhoppers build the nest, some steal materials from other nests. It’s not just among their own that they have to worry about thieves, other birds such as cormorants steal their nesting material too, and the cormorants squabble among themselves for that nesting material. Cormorants rarely attack penguins directly, but that doesn’t mean they are completely harmless to them. They think nothing of trampling over any that might be in their way. One chick is knocked from his nest and walked over by some cormorants. (He survives the ordeal). Later on there are half a million Guanay cormorants that the penguin parents have to shield their chicks from.

The Rockhoppers also face many birds of prey such as skuas, caracaras, petrels and turkey vultures. Their defence is to join together as there is safety in numbers to drive the danger away. Giant petrels are found in both the Falklands and Antarctica, and are a dangerous predator for penguin chicks. One such petrel tries to get a Rockhopper chick that has wandered away from the other chicks to explore. He does, but the chick manages to escape and the adult penguins pile on the invader and drive him away. They then peck the chick as if telling him off and send him back to the other chicks.

In Antarctica the Emperor penguin chicks also protect themselves by huddling together, and the way the petrel attempts to get around this is to charge in case some leave the huddle in fear so it can isolate one. One petrel manages this, but he catches a chick by her feathers and she escapes and runs to the safety of her mother. Later we see another giant petrel try to attack the colony, and again the penguins huddle together in a wall of bodies. Even some of the chicks fight back. It is very satisfying to see the penguin parents succeed in protecting their chicks.

Later on the Emperor parents quietly leave their chicks for the last time and go out to sea. The chicks themselves will make their journey later. The petrel returns, but by this point the chicks have grown quite big and can protect themselves better. One of them makes himself look bigger and seems to be making an effort to protect the others. Then an Adelie penguin, which is smaller than Emperor penguins but is known to have a much more fierce temper, places himself with the chicks. The petrel knows he’s beaten and flies off. Despite this of course being a serious fight for survival, this scene still looked incredibly cute, especially with the chicks chirping.

The Adelie penguin might have been an ally in that fight, but he has his own agenda. He wants the Emperor chicks to move out of the nesting grounds so that he and the other Adelies can move in. He bites the chicks and tries to push them to go out to sea, despite the fact they aren’t ready as they have to shed their fluffy downy feathers.

The Humboldt penguins at one time are stuck between a rock and hard place, or between Charybdis and Scylla if you’re more of a fan of Greek mythology. Both sayings are kind of appropriate as there are plenty rocks, sea water and caves in this programme. They having to go through a mass of sleeping sealions to get to their nesting ground, but the sealions don’t take too kindly to being disturbed and try to attack them so they retreat into a cave… which is full of vampire bats. Fortunately, the cave has a tunnel which allows them to bypass the sealions and go straight to their nesting ground. The Humboldts have to cross the path of sealions several times back and forth. It’s not quite everything against the penguins though, it’s more that every creature is out for its own interests. Sometimes this leads to some advantages for the penguins. For example vampire bats are more likely to attack the sealions, as sealions are a bigger, slower and therefore a much easier target. Later on the beach which was once full of sealions is filled with Guanay cormorants, and while the sealions have moved into the sea, the cormorants get rid of them by mobbing them until they leave, which is better news for the penguins.

Humboldts and Rockhoppers usually mate for life, whereas Emperors choose a new mate every year. We see some of their mating rituals, which involve the ones looking for a partner separating from the main group and displaying themselves. When in a couple they mirror each other and synchronise to confirm that they are an item. This doesn’t always put others off though, as we see with one couple where another female, possibly the penguin equivalent of a bunny boiler, tries to muscle in on the male in the couple. The female in the couple fights the intruding female off, which the narration calls “flippers at dawn”, but she returns later to try and spoil their mating.

There are so many moments when you want to root for the penguins. One in the first episode where an Emperor penguin gets lost in an ice maze and is left behind, but thanks to a blizzard he is able to catch up as the others huddle together for warmth. On another occasion an Emperor chick stumbles into the snow and gets back up, but finds she has lost her mother and starts desperately looking for her. Luckily her mother finds her before a blizzard starts. We see a chick who is the tiniest one in the colony and is shivering as he tries to get into the huddle, which he does eventually. Another chick has kind of the opposite problem. She’s in the middle of the huddle and has to find her way out to get to her father and food, as there is a chance another chick will steal it. The parents are aware which chick is theirs through checking their calls, but chicks themselves aren’t choosy about which adult is giving them food. The chick gets to her father by sort of crowd surfing out of the huddle.

The more adventurous of the Humboldt chicks join the adults to go out to sea, but despite being among those more adventurous ones it is still very scary for the chicks. The adults have faced all these obstacles many times over, but it is all new to these chicks. One seems frightened of the new sights of cormorants and steep cliffs. An adult appears to be encouraging him to jump down with the others, which is quite a lovely moment. The chick is then terrified of the sealions and freezes. Instead of going straight through he runs away to the cave to get past the sealions and into the sea, which is the same path other penguins took earlier in the series, but then it was to get from the beach to their nesting grounds rather than the other way round. Then he finally is courageous enough to take the plunge into the sea.

A Rockhopper chick is also very cautious and tries to climb back up a cliff rather than jump into the sea with the others. He ends up tumbling down and is surrounded by caracaras. Fortunately the caracaras are driven away by some steamer ducks and the chick makes it into the sea. Then a giant petrel tries to get him and he dives underwater, coming up immediately having never done it before and then the petrel gets him, but he escapes. Penguins actually spend a significant portion of their lives in the sea, and as we can see they are more in their element there than on land.

It was a lighter, fluffier nature documentary than some. Fluffier in many ways with all the downy feathers of the chicks. It seemed to be more to make pleasant viewing. That’s not to say we didn’t get to see the harsh realities of the natural world. In particular the second episode First Steps, a Rockhopper father leaves his nest to try and chase off a turkey vulture. This proves to be a fatal mistake, as his nest is unguarded, and another turkey vulture swoops down and takes his chick. In the same episode in Antarctica an Emperor chick has died and we see the chick’s mother calling to it hoping for a response. Another female appears to be trying to comfort the mother. Penguins who have lost their chicks often try and steal the chicks of others. A bereaved couple of Rockhopper penguins try to steal some eggs from a female who is on her own, and when her mate returns he manages to drive them away, but it takes a fight.  Emperor chicks that are walking away from their parents are chased by mothers who have lost one or haven’t been able to breed that year. There is a danger the chicks can be crushed or smothered to death. One time we see them crowding around a chick and trying to force her into a pouch despite the fact the chick is far too big to fit in it at this point. It’s only after her real mother finds her that she’s safe.

But there’s also plenty of cute stuff where we can personify them. There are the Emperor penguins “skating on an ice rink'”, and sledging on their stomachs. We get to see the Humboldt penguins having a soft landing after falling off a cliff landing on the feathers of moulting sea birds. There are the Rockhopper penguins taking a shower underneath a cliff and squabbling over who gets turn, apart from one who simply f”chimney climbs” up to the source of water and washes with that.  All the penguins look playful in the sea, and underwater they are very slick and impressive compared to how comical we sometimes see them as on land.  Even on land they are resourceful, with for example the way they can use their beaks as an ice pick.

This programme was enchanting in many ways. One thing I liked seeing was how similar the different species of penguin were despite the fact that they look very different. The Emperors are the popular “tuxedo” image of penguins, standing upright living in the Antarctic with fluffy grey and white chicks. The Rockhoppers were small with a yellow feathers of their head and had chicks with brown feathers, while the Humboldts were also quite small, grey and look slightly more like other waterbirds and live in a fairly tropical climate. But in all three types the parents shared duties more or less equally with one going out to fish and the other looking after the young, and when threatened by either predators or the weather they all band together, and as the narration points out the “place they were born to be” is the sea. There have been plenty of programmes and other media about penguins because of their popularity, but it’s easy to see why they are so appealing.

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