Even though the egg had arrived, the pair of emperors didn’t seem to be settling down, and it suddenly dawned on me that the next phase may happen faster than I’d expected. The male immediately started showing interest in the egg and without giving his partner any time to recover from her ordeal he started trying to take charge of it. Advancing with his head low, he nearly knocked the female off her feet. He was clearly keen to get hold of the egg but with the female appearing reluctant they eventually settled down, resuming their couple’s stance next to one another.
I sat up and looked over to them. Having witnessed the whole episode on the small screen within my camera’s viewfinder, I wondered what was going through their heads. Depending on how quickly the female would be willing to transfer her egg over to the male, these were potentially the last few moments they were to spend together until she returned in over sixty days. Did the male really want to take responsibility for such a precious item?
Since arriving back at the colony after the summer he’d been slowly shedding a small number of feathers on his belly just above his feet. This area of bare skin is present on all birds that incubate eggs, but is probably most obvious in emperors when they stand tall. Every few moments the male leant forward and, using his long curved beak, made final adjustments, nipping away any loose feathers that seemed out of place and ensuring his brood pouch was just the right size. The patch of pink bare skin on a bird so densely covered in thick black and white feathers looked raw without an egg hiding it.
Calling together, both birds stood tall, as if showing off their egg and brood pouches to each other. I wondered if they were signaling to one another that they were ready. The male again leant forwards, delicately scraping the tip of his beak across the surface of the precious egg. The female still seemed reluctant to relinquish her power over the egg. I zoomed my camera lens towards the egg and without warning she abruptly but carefully parted her feet, stepping backwards, exposing the fragile egg to the elements and freezing ice on which it lay. It filled my frame. The male reacted immediately, keeping the tip of his beak within an inch of the egg even when not actually touching it. He stepped forward, his eyes entering the top of my picture. With his wide-open eyes it was obvious he was aware of the importance of the moment but he didn’t seem to panic; he had to be quick enough to prevent the egg from freezing,
yet not so quick that he risked cracking it. Using the very end of his beak, he gently dragged the egg between his feet, the point facing away from him, and in a final maneuver cautiously brought his feet together, lifting the egg upwards and away from the lethal ice. Together, they’d successfully completed the riskiest part of their breeding process and I could breathe a sigh of relief. I had got it.
The only thing left to happen now was the female leaving to head out to sea; the process had been incredibly quick and I readied myself for the final act. It seemed like role reversal; from the male paying extreme interest in the female’s egg, it was now the female that paid interest in the male’s egg. It wasn’t that she wanted it back, she just wanted confirmation it was safe and that she could trust him before she disappeared. He slouched, lowering onto his feet, blanketing his egg with his feathers. Dropping his shoulders, he closed his eyes. As he shivered in the cold, the male knew this was it and the female got the message. He was ready. She turned around. Walking away, she momentarily hesitated and glanced back. I couldn’t help but translate it as, ‘Stay safe, I won’t be long.’ Her head dropped, she fell onto her belly and started to toboggan away into the distance.
The egg was now the sole responsibility of the male through what were arguably the toughest conditions on the planet. As the wind picked up, the female vanished into the snowdrift as she made her way north in the direction of open water. Weak and hungry, she had no idea how far her journey would be and I was amazed she still had the energy.
I sat back and turned to Will, who’d been at my side watching the whole process as I’d filmed. The whole courtship ritual and mating process, which had taken almost two months, had concluded in an incredibly short but significant moment. The process had taken under forty-five minutes from start to finish, but having had my own eyes buried in the camera capturing as much detail as possible, what I’d just witnessed hadn’t quite sunk in.
The strength of the bond between the two birds was overwhelming and, all of a sudden, I was struck by the parallels between a pair of emperor penguins and my relationship with Becky. The pair had just separated, not knowing whether they’d ever see each other again, the female unaware of whether their egg or its father would make it through the winter, and the male unsure if his partner would survive two months out at sea. As I thought of the moment I’d left Becky and our unborn baby at the front door of the house, disappearing round the corner in the car, it hit me. Witnessing moments such as a pair of emperors laying an egg, transferring it between them and saying goodbye to one another was why I’d travelled to Antarctica, why I’d sacrificed such a huge amount. I was seeing natural events that only a handful of people could say they’ve ever witnessed, and these were the moments I’d dreamt about. Tears filled my eyes and froze immediately to the top of my cheek and balaclava; clearly, my emotions were very close to the surface.
I looked at the male and knew how he felt. I knew the bond between the two birds was strong but I had no idea it was that strong and I just wanted to go over and give him a hug. For the next sixty or more days he would be a single parent, battling to survive the darkest, coldest and windiest winter on Earth while at the same time caring for a fragile egg that balanced on top of his feet. The prospect was simply one of the wonders of the natural world.
From My Penguin Year: Life Among the Emperors by Lindsay McCrae. Copyright © 2019 by Lindsay McCrae. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.