Penguin Post Office

penguinpostofficePenguin Post Office was part of the BBC’s Natural World series. The documentary is about a British post office located in Port Lockroy in Antarctica, which is also a breeding ground for gentoo penguins.

Port Lockroy was previously a British base and research centre which was working on developing radio communication signals. Nowadays it is part of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust, and has reopened as a post office and museum. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Antarctica. I can see why it attracts tourists. Penguins are extremely popular, and to have an opportunity to see them close-up in their natural habitat is very appealing. There is also the novelty of writing and sending a postcard from such an unusual location. There will some nostalgia to it too, as sadly post offices and even the act of sending a written postcard is becoming rarer these days. The museum section shows objects left behind from when the site was a research centre in the 1940s and 1950s, such of tins for Player’s Navy Cut tobacco, old alcohol bottles, a gramophone, old photographs of the Queen, and paintings by the men that worked in the research centre of attractive female Hollywood stars from the era such as Marilyn Monroe, Diana Dors and Elizabeth Taylor.

The place looks very like a postcard, as it is gorgeous to look at, with the white of the snow and icebergs and the blue of the sky and sea, as well as the bright red of the Royal Mail post box. It all looks very beautiful, magical and charming. The post office volunteers there certainly think so. Jane Cooper, who has trained as a lawyer, was one of them, and said “The colours here it’s just hues of blue and grey and white, and very bright even on a dull day” and that it is “the nearest thing I can imagine to being on another planet on our planet”.

Kristy Leslie is a university teacher, and for this season was the Deputy Postmaster at the Penguin Post Office. She stated it was a great place to work and to be able to see the life cycle of the penguins. She said how much she enjoyed hand-franking all the postcards as it was relaxing, and the place was “Really romantic, it is pretty magical here”.

It isn’t all lovely for them all the time though. They have to endure the cold temperature and the blizzards, plus they have to clean the penguin poop off the rocks every day. But all of the workers spoke of seeing a different perspective from working there, that it made them appreciate life more and that you don’t need as much as you might think.

Of course the main focus of the programme was the natural history side, on the gentoo penguins. Most gentoos mate for life, with both male and female having an equal share in parenting duties, taking turns with one incubating the egg and the other going fishing for krill. They go fishing as far as ten miles from their land nesting sites, but penguins are right at home in the sea. As comically clumsy as they look on land, in the sea they are very graceful and fast, the fastest swimming bird on Earth in fact. This affinity to water seems to be something which is learned rather than inborn though, as the penguin chicks are scared of going into water at first.

Their nests are built using pebbles and stones. Normally birds use twigs from trees, but there are no trees in Antarctica, so stones will have to do. This makes those stones very valuable to the penguins though. The narration stated that “Picking the best pebble is the penguin equivalent of giving a loved one a box of chocolates”.

But the tone of the documentary didn’t stay sweetly romantic for long. If you think that penguins are as pure as the Antarctic snow, this programme will have shattered some illusions. They have a bad side. Some of that “bad side” was still kind of adorable. They often nick each other’s hard earned pebbles and stones, most of the stones end up getting stolen and restolen over and over again. We also see a love triangle, a male penguin is flirting with a female who isn’t his ‘wife’, but his ‘wife’ returns, and attacks and drives off her love rival before attacking her cheating ‘husband’.

There were other things which showed the harsh realities of the constant fight for survival in the natural world. Gentoo penguin females tend to lay two eggs at a time. The penguin chicks are born blind, exhausted from breaking out of their egg and completely dependent on their parents, needing constant care and feeding. When the two penguin chicks get older, they have to work for their food, and are encouraged to chase their parents for it, and to compete with one another. The one who gets there first is fed first. It’s basically to keep them fit and healthy, and to prepare them for when they have to fend for themselves as adults. But if food is scarce, the penguin parents will favour the stronger chick, that is the one with the better chance of survival. This is of course not very fair, especially considering that the chick which happens to be born first is at a distinct advantage. The first born usually hatches about three days before the second, so has a head start in getting fed and building up strength. To use a human comparison, it seems to be a bit like “an heir and a spare”, where royal families have tried to make sure they have at least two children, one to be the heir to the throne, and another in case anything happens to the older one. With the gentoo penguins, it doesn’t look quite as cruel as the shoebill for example, which tend to favour one chick and leave the other to starve as a matter of course. With the gentoos (and other birds) they are more likely to do that if needs be rather than as the default, but it does show that the fight for survival isn’t a level playing field.

Some scenes in this documentary were actually quite graphic. There were some gory shots of the torn remains of a penguin chick being swallowed by a skua. Then there was a scene when a penguin chick had gone into the territory of some neighbouring adults, and was brutally attacked by them. The chick was seen bleeding and lying on the floor, but the two adult penguins kept on attacking it until it was dead. The chicks sibling then seemed to grieve, as it was seen laying its head on the chick’s dead body. Apparently, this sort of thing has been very rarely seen and isn’t thought to happen often, but it was still unsettling.

Skuas are the other bird which have a significant role in this documentary, and it’s easy to cast them as the villains of the piece. They are technically the antagonists, as the stars of the documentary are the penguins, and skuas eat penguin eggs and penguin chicks. They have been known to eat the eggs and chicks of other skuas too. There is also the fact that, superficial as it is, skuas are a lot uglier than penguins, and let’s be honest, we humans tend to like cute animals better. But skuas have fluffy chicks of their own to worry about, and really all they’re doing is trying to survive. They have some similarities with penguins though. One parent sits on the nest while the other goes fishing, and they both take turns in doing this. A male, female and a chick are seen sharing a fish meal. They also seem to have a “an heir and a spare” approach, as again the female tends to lay two eggs at a time, and the skua family we were shown weren’t bothered about abandoning the second egg after the first one had hatched.

Still, while trying not to see nature as too much of a simplistic “goodies vs baddies” thing, the most satisfying scene in the programme was one where the penguin chicks got one over on a skua. The skua was seen chasing a group of penguin chicks. It looked strange, as at this stage in their growth even one chick was quite a bit bigger than the skua, but there was a large group of them running terrified from it. The chicks soon seemed to figure out they could be a strong force if they banded together, and collectively they managed to chase the skua away and drive it off. You felt like cheering them on.

This programme reminded me in some ways of the ’90s cartoon series The Animals of Farthing Wood, in that the title might sound sweet, but it was well known for showing the sort of gory, cruel deaths that happen in the natural world. This documentary was similar. The title Penguin Post Office sounds quite whimsical, and we got to see penguins looking cute slipping on rocks and swimming, and the nice post office, and the beautiful scenery, but they also showed that nature can be cruel and callous, and as I said a couple of the scenes were quite shocking. So I ended up having a mixed feeling about it as a viewing experience, but as a documentary programme I’d rate it as very good. I liked learning about the post office and its history, and penguins are always an interesting documentary subject.

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