The whole point of the Worst Journey that winter of 1911 was to collect a series of emperor penguin eggs so that Wilson could describe their embryological development. At the time, penguins were thought to be the most primitive of birds. Turns out they aren’t – they’re actually so non-primitive that they not only learned how to fly but learned how not to fly all over again.
Anyway, the three men make their way to the tip of Cape Crozier, a few days before the blizzard that tore the roof off their igloo (see last week). They gawk over the edge of an 800-foot cliff for a bit, then work their way down and onto a maze of ice jumbles, piled up from a hundred thousand years of the Ross Ice Shelf pushing against Ross Island.
The crests here rose fifty or sixty feet…. Our best landmarks were patches of crevasses, sometimes three or four in a few footsteps…. It was impossible for me to wear spectacles, and this was a tremendous handicap to the party: Bill [Wilson] would find a crevasse and point it out; Birdie [Bowers] would cross; and then time after time, in trying to step over or climb over on the sledge, I put my feet right into the middle of the cracks. This day I went well in at least six times.
After hours of exploring cul-de-sacs:
And then we heard the Emperors calling.
Their cries came to us from the sea-ice we could not see, but which must have been a chaotic quarter of a mile away. They came echoing back from the cliffs, as we stood helpless and tantalized.
The thin June twilight had gone. They turned and headed for the igloo. The next day they found a way through an ice tunnel:
It was a longish way, but quite possible to wriggle along, and presently I found myself looking out of the other side with a deep gully below me, the rock face on one hand and the ice on the other.
We saw the Emperors standing all together huddled under the Barrier cliff some hundreds of yards away. The little light was going fast: we were much more excited about the approach of complete darkness and the look of wind in the south than we were about our triumph….
The disturbed Emperors made a tremendous row, trumpeting with their curious metallic voices. There was no doubt they had eggs, for they tried to shuffle along the ground without losing them off their feet. But when they were hustled a good many eggs were dropped and left lying on the ice, and some of these were quickly picked up by eggless Emperors who had probably been waiting a long time for the opportunity. In these poor birds the maternal side seems to have necessarily swamped the other functions of life.
(Cherry’s explanation arises from the idea of group selection, which was very popular at the time and remained so until around midcentury.)
But interesting as the life history of these birds must be, we had not travelled for three weeks to see them sitting on their eggs. We wanted the embryos, and we wanted them as young as possible, and fresh and unfrozen, that specialists at home might cut them into microscopic sections and learn from the previous history of birds throughout the evolutionary ages.
That’s “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” for you. The team collected five eggs and killed three 80-pound adults to feed the blubber stove.
Now we found that these birds were so anxious to sit on something that some of those which had no eggs were sitting on ice! Several times Bill and Birdie picked up eggs to find them lumps of ice, rounded and about the right size, dirty and hard.
That was it: three weeks of man-hauling sledges to get here, three hours with the penguins. Cherry continues to give the impression of trailing along behind the other two like a kid brother:
In one place where there was a steep rubble and snow slope down I left the ice-axe half-way up; in another it was too dark to see our former ice-axe footsteps, and I could see nothing, and so just let myself go and trusted to luck. With infinite patience Bill said: ‘Cherry, you must learn how to use an ice-axe.’
But bumbling did have a small fringe benefit:
We found the sledge, and none too soon, and now had three eggs left, more or less whole. Both mine had burst in my mitts: the first I emptied out, the second I left in my mitt to put into the cooker; it never got there, but on the return journey I had my mitts far more easily thawed out than Birdie’s (Bill had none) and I believe the grease in the egg did them good.