Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Guest Post | The day it rained sardines in Namibia: Part 3

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguinIn this series of posts, she describes a unique resupply mission to help rescued African penguin chicks being hand-raised in Namibia.  Read Part 1, which ended with the rehabilitation team asking for help getting food for the young chicks in their care. In Part 2, Jessica springs into action! Keep reading for the exciting conclusion. And make plans to see penguins in person here at the Aquarium—we have more than 80 birds on exhibit!

Gino’s voice sounds far away through my headphones. “I’m going to first fly a loop past the island so we can check out the best way to do this. Don’t want to bludgeon any birds or the two small solar panels next to the house with our fish bricks, so we need to find an open space near the building to aim the parcels at.” Gino slows down the plane and we discuss our strategy.

The yellow plane: Kilo-Tango-Charlie, Gino’s canary-yellow Citabria.
Photo: I. Weisel

Okay, here goes. Our first fly-past. Gino opens his window, I hand him the first parcel and hold my breath. NOW! Gino throws it out of the window and immediately pulls the plane into a steep left-hand bank, away from the island. “Can you see where it landed?” he shouts. “Spot-on Gino. It landed next to the balcony!!!” I can see Joan and Rian hopping up and down, giving us the thumbs-up.

Sitting behind Gino: not much space in the plane | Photo: I. Weisel

Four more fly-pasts later (one parcel went into the sea but the rest landed where they were supposed to) we are on our way home. The desert below us is glowing gold in the late afternoon light and we chat cheerfully all the way back to the Lüderitz airfield. It is dark by the time we have parked Gino’s plane in its shed and are back in town. The phone rings. “Please do not hang up…this call is from a radio…do not speak until after the tone…beeeeeep.” Static crackles over the line. “Jessica, it’s Joan, can you hear me? I just wanted to let you know that we currently have five very content chicks with full bellies sitting in our kitchen; thank you so much – over.” When I hang up the phone I smile. I certainly don’t want to do this again in a hurry, but it had all been worth it.

View from the lounge: the hardships of living a lonely island life are compensated by
the company of thousands of birds outside the lounge window.
Photo: Jessica Kemper

PS: these events took place on March 26, 2003. The vessel servicing the islands was repaired a few days after our rescue flight and delivered lots of frozen sardines to the island. The four penguin chicks and Katanga the Cape gannet chick all fledged successfully. Rian still lives on Mercury Island and monitors the seabird populations there.

Cape gannets: Mercury supports the northernmost of only six Cape gannet colonies in the world. Their numbers have dwindled drastically in Namibia and they are now considered “critically endangered” there.
Photo: Jessica Kemper

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

Read all of her guests posts on the Penguin Blog here.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Guest Post | The day it rained sardines: Part 2

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts, she describes a unique resupply mission to help rescued African penguin chicks being hand-raised in Namibia. Read Part 1, which ended with the rehabilitation team asking for help getting food for the young chicks in their care.

Oh no, what a predicament. It takes eight hours by boat to reach Mercury Island from the small harbor town of Lüderitz; there is no way we could find a boat willing to take a few boxes of frozen sardine that far and at such short notice. Never mind that it would cost an arm and a leg. And getting there by land through the extensive dune fields is definitely not an option either.

Where the Namib meets the sea: much of the coast between Lüderitz and Mercury Island
consists of massive dune fields | Photo: Jessica Kemper

“Listen Joan, don’t panic just yet. Let me think about it; I’ll give you a radio-call in an hour—over and out.”

Well, at least it is one of these rare days with perfect weather. No howling wind, no fog. I phone my friend Gino - a conservationist and keen aviator - and discuss my (admittedly rather bizarre) idea of doing a “Mercury-Island-fly-past-sardine-drop” with him. I know it’s a long shot, but Gino is enthusiastic and we immediately start planning our airdrop mission. I call Joan and Rian; they are excited but not entirely convinced that this would work. Two hours later we are in the air in Gino’s bright yellow two-seater Citabria. I am firmly wedged into the narrow back seat, balancing five parcels made of tightly wrapped frozen sardine on my lap. Nearly an hour after take-off we can see the island, and as we get closer we spot Joan and Rian waving from the balcony of their house.


The house on Mercury: there is only one house on Mercury Island. Freshwater and other
supplies are brought there by boat | Photo: Jessica Kemper

Stay tuned to for the conclusion to this series of posts: The day it rained sardines in Namibia!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Guest Post | The day it rained sardines: Part 1

Dr. Jessica Kemper is an expert and advocate for the endangered African penguin.  Formerly the head of Section for Namibia's Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and responsible for the conservation management and rescue of the country's seabirds, Jessica now heads the African Penguin Conservation Project. She continues to research Namibia's dwindling penguin population to find ways to improve their conservation status and runs the Seabird Rehabilitation Center in Lüderitz. Population numbers for African penguins have decreased to just 55,000 today from an approximate 1.5 million figure in 1910.

In this series of posts, she describes a unique resupply mission to help rescued African penguin chicks being hand-raised in Namibia. 

“Please do not hang up…this call is from a radio…do not speak until after the tone…beeeeeep.” I patiently listened to the tinny voice recording on the other end of my phone. Clearly somebody from one of the three islands that are staffed permanently by personnel from the Namibian Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources was trying to get hold of me, but which one? Mercury, Ichaboe or Possession Island? I am instantly worried, because it’s usually not a good sign when they phone me at home.

Lonely Mercury Island: One of the jewels of Namibia’s coast, tiny Mercury Island lies in picturesque Spencer Bay, about 100km north of the town of Lüderitz | Photo: Jessica Kemper

“Hi Jessica, it’s Joan from Mercury Island, can you hear me – over.” Ah, Mercury Island, undoubtedly the most beautiful island in the world. A mere 3ha in extent, a rocky cigar-shaped pyramid (or is it actually a pyramid-shaped cigar?), nestled in a stunning bay along the stark Namib Desert coastline of southern Namibia and covered in African penguins, Cape gannets and Bank cormorants. It is hollow, with seven cave entrances meeting in a large central cave below the centre of the island. When the sea is rough, the waves colliding in the belly of the island make the whole island shake.

Mercury penguins: Nearly 17000 African Penguins live on Mercury Island, making it the most important penguin breeding island in Namibias. Dolphin Head and the wreck of the Otavi provide a stunning backdrop.
Photo: Jessica Kemper

Bank Cormorant family: About three quarters of the endangered world population of Bank cormorants
breeds on tiny Mercury Island | Photo: Jessica Kemper

Gut Cut: One of the seven entrances leading into the central cave below the island, 
named so by a former islander with a vivid imagination

“Hello Joan, yes I can hear you fairly well, what’s up? – over.” I hear sobbing over the static. “Jessica, I’m so sorry to bother you, but I have no idea what to do. The supply vessel was supposed to arrive last week, but it broke down and we are now out of fish to feed the four penguin chicks and the gannet chick we are rehabilitating. They are all too young to be released. Rian and I have been catching fish around the clock, but we can’t catch enough to feed the birds with. We desperately need help… – over.”

Plan a visit to the Aquarium to learn about the resident African penguins at the Aquarium. They are part of a North American species survival plan. We had two chicks born here this summer. 

Read the next post in this series: The day it rained sardines in Namibia! 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Finding the perfect gift

Each year we like to get holiday gifts for our volunteers to thank them for their hard work and dedication throughout the year. In past years we have given out cute penguin ornaments, penguin water bottles, we even helped all our volunteers live blue™ by giving them waterproof reusable bags to bring their wet bathing suits home instead of using plastic bags. This year we were having a hard time thinking of a gift that was thoughtful and useful. We finally came up with an idea that is both cute and thoughtful and helps to save an endangered species. We're sponsoring abandoned wild penguin chicks!

A hungry penguin chick | Photo: Romy Klusener via SANCCOB

Each year, due to food shortages, adult African penguins in South Africa may be forced to abandon their chicks on shore so they can go farther out to sea to find enough food to sustain themselves through their yearly molt. Without their parents to provide them with food, these abandoned chicks would die. With the endangered African penguin population declining at an alarming rate, the death of these chicks will have a big impact on the future of African penguins.

A penguin chick in the chick rearing program at SANCCOB | Photo: SANCCOB

Workers from SANCCOB, a seabird rescue and rehabilitation center in Cape Town, South Africa, comb the beaches collecting these abandoned chicks to bring to their facility. Once at SANCCOB these chicks are nursed back to health and fattened up until they grow up and fledge into their waterproof juvenile feathers. They are even given “swimming lessons” before release to make sure they are comfortable in the water much like what we do with our chicks before they join the adults in our exhibit.

A penguin chick at the Aquarium during a swim session

Once the chicks are at a healthy weight and have waterproof feathers, they are released back into the wild. This year SANCCOB has taken in a record number of chicks, and with over 500 hungry mouths to feed, SANCCOB set up a donation program to raise money to help pay for all the food and supplies needed to rehabilitate these chicks. They set up the Adopt a “Christmas Chick” program.  If you want to learn more about SANCCOB and all the things they are doing to help the endangered African penguin along with other local sea birds check out their website.

Penguin chicks released have temporary pink marks on their chest for tracking purposes | Photo: SANCCOB

SANCCOB is not the only rescue operation that is dealing with record numbers of patients. Our very own Marine Animal Rescue Team has treated over 700 stranded sea turtles. Learn more about this amazing effort follow our Marine Animal Rescue Team blog.

One of the 700+ rescued sea turtles cared for at the Aquarium's Animal Care Center via the Rescue Blog

So instead of individual volunteer gifts, we decided to pool the money and adopt two chicks on behalf of our volunteers. Through the program we were able to name each adopted chick. We named one “Lewende Blou” which is Afrikaans, one of the official languages spoken in South Africa, for “live blue” and the second one was named “Vrywilliger” which is Afrikaans for volunteer. While we will never meet the two chicks we adopted, we feel good knowing that the money we donated will help provide food and medication to these chicks ultimately helping them return to the wild.

Lewende blou means live blue in Afrikaans

Vrywilliger means volunteer in Afrikaans

So the next time you are stuck trying to find that perfect gift for someone, a donation to your favorite charity or organization like the New England Aquarium in someone’s name is a great way to give a thoughtful gift and a way to give back to the community. Learn more about how you can make a contribution to the Aquarium. Your donation supports the Aquarium's education, conservation and research efforts around the world. In addition, your donation goes to care for the animals at the Aquarium—like top-notch medical care and food for penguins!

Happy Holidays from the Aquarium's penguins and penguin staff!

Little blue penguin with a Photoshopped hat | Photo: Aquarium volunteer Ray H.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Guest Post | Fossil Evidence for the Rise of Penguins: Australia and Africa

Daniel Ksepka, PhD, is the Curator of Science at the Bruce Museum. Ksepka earned his PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University in 2007 and spent five years in residence at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he performed his dissertation research on the fossil record of penguins and gained broad experience in the curation and study of natural history objects including fossils, skeletal materials, skins and geological specimens.

In this last post of the series, Daniel will share information about prehistoric penguins. 

Like South America, Australia was just a short distance from Antarctica during the Eocene Epoch but would later drift northwards. Despite being much larger than New Zealand, Australia has far fewer penguins. Today, the only penguin that breeds on the Australian mainland is the little blue penguin, a tiny bird that stands, or perhaps one should say hunches, about one foot tall. This delightful species can be seen at the New England Aquarium, and in fact many of the individuals in the enclosure are birds who were hatched in Australian zoos from rehabbed parents but could not be released in the wild and needed a safe new home.

Little blue penguin

Our knowledge of Australia's ancient penguins is very fuzzy, coming from just a handful of fossil specimens that have been collected over the years. Palaeontologists have discovered evidence that penguins made it to the southern coast of Australia by the Eocene Epoch, and some reached sizes that would have made a little blue penguin look like a bug. However, with only bits of flipper bones and similar scraps left behind, these ancient penguins have revealed little about their overall appearance.

The large species vanished before modern little blue penguins started arriving from New Zealand, but we do not know why. Bones of penguins have been found in pre-colonial middens, indicating humans hunted some species during the pre-colonial era. However, most of the large extinct penguin species such as Anthropodyptes gilli were long gone by the time humans appeared on the scene, so overhunting cannot completely explain why Australia is so depleted of penguin diversity today.

Fossil humerus (flipper bone) of the mysterious Australian penguin Pseudaptenodytes macraei,
compared to the same bone from a modern emperor penguin.
Image courtesy of Travis Park

Finally, we reach Africa. Africa appears to be the last major landmass that penguins reached in their sweeping journey across the southern ocean. The oldest penguin fossils discovered in African sediments come from the Saldanha Steel site and are between 10 and 12 million years in age. These bones were fortuitously exposed while an industrial steel plant was being constructed, which is an isolated incident. Indeed, one extinct species of African penguin is named Nucleornis insolitus because it was discovered during construction at a reactor site. There seem to have been at least four different species of penguins living side by side in Africa in the past, swimming along the coast of an area inhabited by such oddities as the extinct African Bear (Agriotherium africanum) and the short-necked giraffe (Sivatherium hendeyi).

This reproduction of a painting shows a Sivatherium of an undetermined species | Via

The New England Aquarium's own African penguins (also known as black-footed penguins or jackass penguins) are members of the sole species that breeds in Africa today. These fine fellows appear to be newcomers to Africa. They only start showing up about half a million years ago, at a point when all the ancient species seem to have already vanished.

Skeletal reconstruction of the extinct African penguin Inguza predemersus with a modern
black-footed penguin for scale. Fossil art by Kristin Lamm, living penguin art by Barbara Harmon.

So the march of penguins was completed. Beyond the three continents we covered, penguins also live on many small islands today, though we have little knowledge of their ancient history in these locales because fossils tend not to be available. Far from being restricted to icy Antarctica, penguins have truly conquered the myriad environments of the southern hemisphere.

By request of my image providers, the standard conditions are: one time single use, with no transfer of copyright.