SAVING THE PENGUINS
Doug was on his knees, face to the ground, squinting into the tiny entrance, nudging the male
so he could get a better view of the five-digit number on the stainless steel band wrapped around
the penguin’s left flipper.
“Three four six two seven. Have you got that?” Doug shouted over the wind.
“Three four six two seven,” Angela repeated back without looking up. She leafed through her
notebook, browsing for the number. She’d banded thousands of birds over her fifteen years at
Punta Verde; every penguin fitted with a tag was listed here, with a number, place and date.
Yet despite such a wealth of data, most numbers were entered once and never again revisited.
Tagging a penguin was akin to putting a note in a bottle, tossing it out to sea, and waiting for it
“Red dot?” Doug asked hopefully.
Angela didn’t reply right away. While finding a tagged bird wasn’t as statistically significant
as winning the lottery, it certainly felt that way – and the greatest jackpot of all was when they
discovered a red-dot bird.
A red-dot was a bird tagged in the year when it was born which meant that it was possible to
tell how old it was. Young penguins typically spent four to seven years at sea before they
reached breeding age and returned to their colonies. Yet not all penguins returned, and
the reasons had puzzled researchers for years. Because red-dot birds had been tracked since
birth, Angela and the other naturalists knew more about them than about any other tagged bird
– and they still wished they knew more. Whether five or twenty years had passed, finding
a red-dot bird always felt like a family reunion.
But she was beginning to hope that this bird was not a red-dot. She was reluctant to let Doug
handle the bird, even though she knew it was his duty. It was the expected order of things,
for researchers to pass on their knowledge and skills. Once they identified a red-dot, they had
to weigh it, then measure its feet and the density of feathers around its eyes.
Doug hadn’t yet weighed a penguin, and once he did, it would be one less thing he needed to
learn from her. One less reason to join her on these trips. One day closer to not needing her at
all and leaving. The life of a naturalist was a solitary one, spent more with animals than with
people. Angela was aware of that but still she wished Doug would stay with her. She looked at
the list again and felt relieved. It wasn’t a red-dot.
adapted from www.thetouristtrail.com