Try Orion

I, Turbo

The penguin that refused to be data

Text and photographs by Eric Wagner

Published in the July/August 2011 issue of Orion magazine




THE SCARS COVER MY ARMS, my hands. The most impressive are on the soft flesh between my thumb and forefinger, two-inch-long seams, angry and pink. I’d use them to get sympathy, but El, my wife, looks worse. Although we are similarly marked, her skin is darker, her crosshatchings and scores more vivid. When people see us, they are aghast. They ask what on earth happened to us. We shrug. What can we say? The penguins of Punta Tombo are vicious.

Punta Tombo is a desert peninsula on the southern coast of Argentina. It has a desert’s expected complement of hardy animals and abstemious plants. But somewhat unexpectedly, it is also home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. Every year, close to half a million come to breed along the miles of rugged coastline.

El and I had gone at the behest of Dee Boersma, a professor at the University of Washington. Her suggestion was at once so casual and so absurd—how would you two like to spend the next six months in a leaky trailer, getting bitten and beaten fourteen hours a day without a day off, ever?—that we didn’t stop to think whether going would be wise. Dee has an arresting presence. I first met her when I took her course on conservation biology a few years previous. Her lessons were notable for their strong moral underpinnings about the way things ought to be. This was not consistent with the objectivity I had thought the dictum of science, but she was unapologetic. “I want you to know that this is values science,” she said. “You can’t listen to everything I’m about to tell you and not feel anything. You just can’t. I won’t let you.”

Dee could get away with this approach because she had studied the colony at Punta Tombo for twenty-five years and had been called the Jane Goodall of penguins. For her, penguins were an ideal system. They could accommodate her beliefs precisely because they were incapable of political nuance. If they became saturated with oil while at sea, they washed up dead on the shore. If a changing climate scattered the fish and squid they relied on for food, they swam until they found them or starved. It was up to the scientists—Dee and now, for a time, El and me—to interpret those signs and act as conscience dictated.

But even in the throes of our initial and perhaps willfully blind enthusiasm, I had nagging doubts. I worried how we would handle the rigors of Punta Tombo. This would be our first prolonged exposure to The Field, and The Field is a unique psychic landscape. The Field, depending on the season, is parched and dusty, frigid and bleak, or sweltering and muddy. That hordes of mosquitoes patrol The Field is taken as read, but you will also vie for your fluids with ticks, leeches, and fleas. In The Field, your clothes are never clean. The food is pragmatic at best. Don’t even think about drinking the water. And those are just the physical privations.

“A lot of chicks are going to die,” I said to El, for she is a champion of cute and vulnerable creatures.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I know how it works.”

“They might die horribly,” I persisted. “Right in front of you. And you couldn’t do a thing about it.”

“Mm,” she said.

I peeped pitifully and fluttered my hands the way I figured a starving chick might.

“Stop it,” she said.

This was the other consideration: that to be in The Field is to presume a particular relationship with a subject. We would observe the penguins, we would become more familiar with their rhythms than we were with those of our immediate families, but our immersion could only be clerical.

We discussed these provisos, assured ourselves that we were sufficiently spiritually robust, and then off we went, to the desert, to The Field—to the place where we would confront our models with data.

THE TOWN CLOSEST TO Punta Tombo is a former Welsh settlement called Trelew more than sixty miles away. To get to the colony from there, follow Ruta Nacional 3 south for forty miles or so. Then take a left, and go about six miles until you come to a gate with a large sign in front of it welcoming you to the Reserva Nacional de Punta Tombo, and a number of smaller traffic signs strongly advising that you obey them. It is then thirteen miles down a jarring, unpaved road through a large estancia—the colony was on private land until 1979—to the park entrance itself.

It was a late afternoon in mid-September when we fishtailed down this last road and its corners of trigonometric daring. We were with Ginger Rebstock, a researcher from Dee’s lab who had been coming to Punta Tombo for the past seven years. Ginger drove carefully, now and again pointing out the fleeing roadside wildlife: small herds of guanacos, relatives of the llama; introduced European hares; and the elegant-crested tinamou (in Spanish, martinetta), a quasi-quail that flies only as a last resort and lays eggs that look uncannily like giant green olives.

We swayed around a corner. “There it is,” said Ginger, nodding since she couldn’t take her hands from the wheel to gesture more grandly. “For me, this is the most beautiful sight in the world.”

El and I gazed out the windshield. Spread before us were bushes that guarded their improbable leaves with tremendous spines, worn reddish hills and plateaus, and the point itself, Tombo, a gnarled finger of arid earth that curled into the Atlantic Ocean, which was a blue so rich and cool it seemed somehow out of place.

Ginger pulled up next to the field house, and we staggered out of the truck. We badly needed a walk to settle our stomachs and clear our heads, so we hunched up the trail that bisects part of the colony. We had gone only a short distance when we saw our first penguin. It was under a bush just off the trail, resting on its belly. It peered up at us quizzically and twisted its head back and forth, which is how a penguin tells you it doesn’t like you. El and I stopped and cocked our own heads. We considered each other for a moment. Then the penguin closed its eyes and nodded off.

AT SEVENTEEN INCHES TALL, the Magellanic penguin is medium-sized, as penguins go. It has a black back and a white belly and two black bands, one across its throat and the other across its chest. Males are larger than females, with squarer heads and thicker bills, but the differences are subtle. This first penguin was one of the few hanging around at the time; it was early September, early spring, and most of them were still at sea. But in the following days and weeks, more trickled in, almost imperceptibly, until nearly every burrow and bush had a penguin peering out from it, and often two or more. Away from their nests, they would gather by the hundreds and stare at us whenever we happened past, twisting their heads en masse. The effect was visually stupefying.

Even more impressive, though, was the noise. Magellanic penguins belong to the genus Spheniscus. Before they were given a geographically distinct name, members of this genus were known as “jackass penguins”—the male’s ecstatic display sounds a lot like a donkey’s bray. A physically exacting spectacle, it starts when the male stands in front of his nest and feels, for whatever reason, a pressing need to assert his claim. He begins with a series of preliminary huffs—huw…huw…huw—before extending to his full height. His flippers flung wide, he throws his head back, bill agape, breast and belly heaving like a bellows: Huw-huw-huw-huw-huuAAAAAAAAAH. Huw-huw-huw. Having so concluded, he waits to see if any male dare answer his challenge. If one does, he repeats his display. If the rival is especially impudent, the two will clack their bills rapidly against each other, a behavior known as “bill dueling.” Otherwise, he settles back on his heels and closes his eyes, a picture of contented virility.

El and I were soon well acquainted with the bray because, in addition to its use as a territorial claim, penguins bray when they are scared, and they often were when we were around. Laden with the tools of data collection, shielded from harm (for the most part) by various bits of sturdy plastic and heavy cloth, we stumped from study nest to study nest. Our daily tasks required us to reach in with a gancho—a long piece of rebar, the end of which was rounded into a sort of shepherd’s crook and swathed in duct tape—and hook the penguins by their stubby little legs. We would draw one out, grab it by the neck, and then sit on it while the other of us measured its bill length and depth, flipper, and foot.

In the parlance of Punta Tombo, this was “penguin wrangling.” As might be expected, the penguins weren’t terribly fond of it. For our part, the intimacy of the wrangle soon put to rest certain notions of penguin-ness we’d had. If we had been eager to see in their waddling miens amusing caricatures of human self-regard, then we also had to reconcile other, less savory behaviors. Among them: They had no qualms about using the desiccated remains of their dead offspring as nesting material. Also, they were highly committed solipsists, capable of breathtaking indifference to the welfare of their neighbors. Their subjectivity consisted of two states, what we called “Me” and “Not Me.” These are about what they sound like. When we had to fetch a penguin and it vigorously objected, that penguin was said to be deeply in the Me. The penguin not two feet away that couldn’t be bothered to open its eyes? Not Me.

Speaking as one who has spent too much time stewing over real and imagined slights, I envied the penguins their self-possession. To distinguish so coherently between a legitimate assault and everything else, to be so fully present, was, for me, the very essence of wildness. These were not the skulking coyotes or clever crows picking through my garbage, or any of the other exemplars of urban ecology. These were affectless penguins, and this was the desert. When I accosted one of them, I hoped it could recognize how much I appreciated the distinction. I hoped it would see me as, if not a friend—I was three times taller and ten to fifteen times heavier, after all—then at least a fellow aesthete. Forcibly subduing it, muzzling its bill and gripping its powerful neck while pinning its flippers against its body with my thighs, I murmured my admiration into the feathers around its aural cavity. But none of them ever seemed to understand. Instead, they all glared at me with the purest expressions of fear and hatred that I’ve ever seen.

All save one.

EARLY IN THE BREEDING SEASON of 2005, or so Dee thinks, a young penguin was very forcibly evicted from his nest by a stronger male. Perhaps to compensate for his shortcomings, as young males are wont to do, this newly homeless penguin moved in under the Penguin Project’s enormous truck, a Ford F-150 Turbo. His choice made a certain amount of sense. The truck provided good cover. Its undercarriage was nice and snug. To a penguin’s discerning eye, it would make a fine nest, except for its occasional tendency to drive away.

It wasn’t long before this penguin took to visiting the field house. He wasn’t at all shy around humans, so was given not just a flipper band, but a name: Turbo.

Turbo stayed under the truck for the rest of that year, but the next season he moved on. During El’s and my time at Punta Tombo, he had a new nest deep in the center of a large molle bush, surrounded by coils of discarded barbed wire. He would call on us nightly, rapping on the field house door with his bill until we opened it. Then he would toddle in, and someone would stick out an arm or a foot for him to flipper-pat. (Flipper-patting is a precursor to copulation.) Once he had spent his affections, he would doze under the table and keep a bleary eye on us while we went about our business. After some interval, he would decide he’d had enough of our company and stand by the door until we let him out. But he never simply left. He liked someone to walk him to his nest, and he would wait patiently on the doorstep until we obliged him. Then, checking to make sure he was accompanied, he would toddle home.

After a day spent battling penguins, Turbo was a welcome balm. Every other penguin might snap at us and try to pummel us with their flippers, but Turbo ran out to greet us whenever we passed his bush. The odd thing was that he seemed otherwise secure in his penguin-ness. He would stand outside his nest and bray from time to time, and even fight if it came to that. But whereas other penguins dealt in Me and Not Me, Turbo was somehow, indubitably, an I. It wasn’t that he considered himself human. Rather, he thought we were penguins. As we saw ourselves in them, so he saw himself in us. Such were the metaphysics of Turbo. By this breach, he exposed the artifice of our separations. And so released, we indulged in wild fits of anthropomorphism. All the things we wanted to do with penguins but didn’t dare, we did with him: we cooed over him, stroked the firm pelt of his feathers, and even carried him short distances, before he nibbled remonstratively on our arms to remind us to put him down.

BY LATE NOVEMBER AND early December, after weeks of monitoring eggs, the first cracks started to appear, and soon we would visit a nest and find beneath the adult’s belly the wet gray rag of a newly hatched chick. Exhausted, adorable, each one weighed little more than a tennis ball. Their eyes weren’t yet opened, their necks could barely support the weight of their heads, but they were their parents’ children, and the colony soon rang with the claver of their begging. Besotted, we tossed aside what little was left of our objectivity and named with abandon: Jetpack and Jambalaya in nest 413J, Emerson and Emile in 102E, Kumquat and Quiet in 414Q. (Q nests sometimes messed with our conceit.)

Sadly, the act of naming did not confer the permanence we thought it might. One chick, Popcorn, was gone the next time we went to measure it. “Oops,” we chortled. “No more chicks named after snacks then. Don’t want to tempt the fates.”

Then Jambalaya disappeared. Then a fox ate Emile.

Coming to Punta Tombo, we had understood, conceptually at least, that there is a reason seabirds live an unusually long time and breed a lot, but we were ill-prepared for the sheer scale of loss. Chicks were dispatched as quickly as they hatched. There were recurring themes, certainly, starvation chief among them, but they were also torn to pieces by armadillos, dropped from great heights by gulls, stomped on by their parents, trampled more generally, impaled on branches, crushed during fights, neglected, baked in the sun, drowned in puddles of mocking shallowness, smothered when their burrows caved in, made hypothermic by rare but fierce thunderstorms, or, in most cases, they simply vanished without a trace.

More troublesome were our own additions to their ordeals. Daily we continued to make the rounds, reaching into study nests and plucking out those chicks that had survived the week, the night. We measured them; we colored them blue so we would know who was who; when their feet were large enough, we put small tags through the webbing, assured it was no worse than piercing an ear. Throughout, they wailed in terror and shat on our pants. For El, it was sometimes too much. “I hate science,” she said, after one particularly grisly incident in which a male had eviscerated his chick right before our eyes. “I hate that so many of the chicks’ lives are so brief. I hate that during their time they know nothing but pain. And I really hate that the things we do to them scare them so much.”

Worse was the almost indecent length of time some of the chicks could linger. The dull tenacity of their endurance appalled me—the way their chests collapsed as their bodies withered, the way they staggered to any adult penguin, begging begging begging, until they were clubbed and pecked. “Please, for the love of God, just die already,” I pleaded with one chick each day as it wasted away for more than two weeks, while its parents blithely stuffed its larger sibling full of food. But spiritual relief was of no use to that chick, which had only long suffering. When one day I saw that it was, at last, dead, I was relieved as much for myself as I was for it: I would no longer have to face its gaunt stare.

Such chicks brought El to tears. I tried to shield her from the more agonizing ones, but she insisted on looking. “No, don’t!” she said once, pulling fiercely out of my grasp to stare hard at a chick so weak that the wind blew it over. “I have to see.”

Dee kept a distant if sympathetic eye on us. “We’re too insulated from death,” she said once as we walked through an area suffused with the sweet stink of decay. “We forget how much a part of life it is—things are born, things die, that’s the way it’s always been. Here, you can’t get sentimental. The penguins won’t let you.”

I wished I could find consolation in that broader view, but I was too swept up in other dualisms. William Cronon has written that, when we erect false barriers between the human and the wild, the presence of the human—El, me—heralds the fall of the wild. But I certainly didn’t feel like my presence precipitated the fall of Punta Tombo. That was left to the fishing fleets, chronic oil pollution, carbon emissions, whatever: humans in absentia. Instead, Punta Tombo, the wild, crushed me. Stripped of the softer conventions of wilderness, it became a felt reality of equations, variable weights, parameters, contingencies—the naked mechanisms of wildness mashed in my face. I wanted the divide back. I needed reassurance that life was more than algorithm, nasty, brutish, and short.

I withdrew further, to Turbo. Chickless, girded in his armor of the I, he ran to us at the end of each day’s grim turn about the colony. Relieved as I was to see him, I started to question the quality of my attachment to him. As he toddled around, I worried that I was using him, that in pouring all my feeling onto him while dismissing it as false, I was absolving myself of having to care about our subjects’ plight. What ought to have been a broad, if more diffuse empathy was focused instead on a single, batty penguin.

Now, I see that El was the one who responded rightly. It is always better to be distressed by suffering, most especially the suffering of the helpless. Better still to face it rather than run from it, as I did.

WHAT SCIENCE COULD NOT RELIEVE, time did, to some degree. Those chicks that lived doubled and tripled in size, until, by late January, they weighed close to six pounds. Midnight blue feathers began to peep out from under stubborn tufts of down; flippers stiffened with bone. Larger chicks took to standing in front of their nests, flapping to strengthen their chest muscles. They would start slowly, tentatively, speeding up until their flippers hummed in a blur. Then, inevitably, a slight hitch—a pebble, an ill-timed gust of wind—and they would totter, stumble, fall over. A moment’s rest, then once more, with feeling.

It was time for them to fledge. What exactly compels a chick to leave isn’t known, and the chicks themselves seemed unsure about what they were doing, or why, as they tottered down to the shore. Small figures before an enormous beckoning sea, they looked both exhilarated and terrified by their own audacity. Then, perhaps prompted by some inner resolve, or by a dread of the giant petrels leering at them, they stepped forward and, flippers sculling madly, rushed at the waves. Tossed up in the swell beyond the surf, they stayed on the surface for only a moment, strangely, almost exuberantly buoyant, before they dove down and disappeared. They were swimming north, to Brazil, where they would spend the austral winter. Most wouldn’t survive to return.

Turbo also left around this time to put on weight for the annual molt. This is an energetically expensive, and, I’m told, painful procedure. The penguins forage for more than two weeks, and when they return they are bound to land for almost three weeks before they, too, can migrate north. They stand in various states of engorged dishevelment, losing weight as they replace their feathers, until the air swirls with the snow of discarded plumage. Once finished, they are half-starved and their belly skin sags. But they are beautiful, their backs a soft charcoal against a white so bright it almost glows.

I waited for Turbo. This was easy enough at first, but as the days passed and he didn’t return, I grew more and more anxious. Broadly so. Around the world, penguins of all species face an uncertain future. More than half are either vulnerable or endangered, due to what is becoming the standard litany of ills. Coastal development encroaches on their breeding sites. Oil spills foul feathers and habitat. Outbreaks of disease cull large numbers of adults or chicks. Ever-growing fishing fleets continue to clear the seas energetically. Climate change alters patterns of ocean productivity, driving shifts in the distribution of those prey species that are left. And so on.

Set against the thousands of penguins I walked past every day at Punta Tombo, these concerns and statistics were sometimes dulled into abstraction. But then I would think of Turbo. I would imagine him going to sea and navigating through a labyrinth of fishnets, swimming hundreds of miles and finding nothing to eat, and then coming home and on his way to his nest getting run over by a tourist bus. Then the threats were all too real and immediate.

My vigil grew desperate. I checked the nest daily, hourly sometimes. Once, I saw a penguin poking around the nest, but when I called Turbo’s name, the interloper peered at me blankly and twisted his head back and forth. Not Me.

By our last day, I was bereft of hope. We would leave very early the next morning. Small chance that Turbo would come back before then. On our final night, I went to his nest to see if he was back, the action more rote than anything else. But when I peeked in, Turbo erupted from his bush, braying wildly. He was enormously fat, and still wet from the sea. A piece of red algae was stuck to his band.

Later, El told me it sounded like someone had run over a dog, so demented were my howls of joy.

We went through the routine of flipper-patting, and then I walked him back. He scooted past the branches and ducked under the barbed wire, levering his bulk with his bill before slipping away into the dark. I could hear him clucking, which is what penguins do when they are home. I stood there for a moment, listening, feeling relieved and, in a way, justified, though for what exactly I couldn’t say. Then it occurred to me that Turbo had brayed as he would have had he been greeting his mate after a long absence. I wasn’t sure what this said about either him or me, or us, so I decided not to think about it too much. For once. 

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