GalapagosQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect that will take a team of scientists and explorers on a journey of discovery through the extraordinary Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Follow along here for daily reports on their quest.
GalapagosQuest: Swimming with penguins
The penguin population suffered during last year's Niño event. Some
scientists believe the population declined up to 78 percent. Luckily, the waters have returned to a cooler temperature, and hopefully the penguin will have the opportunity to thrive again.|
By Christina Allen
March 18, 1999
Web posted at: 3:08 p.m. EST (2008 GMT)
(Classroom Connect) -- Today I snorkeled with a penguin! Swimming along behind it, inches away, I could see the wrinkles on its stubby feet and every little marking on its white belly.
Every so often, it raised its head and let out a loud honk, much like a donkey. After a few minutes, it ducked its head and zipped straight downward, flapping its stubby wings in short bursts and using its feet as rudders. Wow, for a flightless bird, it really flew through the water! I learned later that they can swim up to 24 miles an hour.
Cruising with tropical fish in 80 degree turquoise water near the equator, you just don't expect to see a tiny penguin bob past, let alone for it to bray like a donkey! Penguins are supposed to live on icebergs, right? Well, this is no ordinary penguin. At only 13-24 inches high and weighing 4-5 pounds (smaller than an average house cat), the Galapagos penguin is one of the smallest in the world.
It is also the most northerly penguin, with its closest relative, the Humboldt penguin, living on the southern coast of South America. Stray individuals probably rode the cold Humboldt current all the way from southern South America to arrive in the Galapagos Islands hundreds of thousands of years ago.
We had come to Bartolome Island's Pinnacle Rock to try to find out how well the penguins had survived last year's El Niño event. You probably know that during an El Niño year, waters warm up and it rains a lot. That's because the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current is weaker than usual, allowing the flow of warm currents from Panama to surround the Galapagos Islands. Water temperatures rise, up to 85 degrees F, and the plankton and fish many marine animals depend on for food are absent.
Due to this scarcity of food, the El Niño of 1982-83 affected nearly all marine species, causing population declines of up to 78 percent for penguins, up to 45 percent for flightless cormorants, and up to 70 percent for marine iguanas.
Penguins can't fly, but they're fast swimmers. Christina learned that
they can swim up to 24 mph
Blue-footed boobies also suffered high death rates and failed to breed, and young sea lions suffered increased disease and death due to starvation. The El Niño event of 1997 resulted in similar, though less severe, impacts. Water temperatures consistently around 85 degrees F caused massive coral bleaching throughout the archipelago and many marine birds didn't breed. What's worse is that many marine birds, including penguins, mate for life, so if one bird dies from starvation, the other may not breed again.
We took a boat ride along the coast to see if we could find breeding penguins. Although we didn't see that many penguins, we did see one juvenile, so they must be breeding successfully. Why are there so few? The answer, we learned from our guide Desiree, is egg-eating rats! Also, there are very few good breeding sites. In the Galapagos, one tiny rocky outcrop called Marielas is the main breeding site for Galapagos penguins, and it's already infested with rats.
In order to compare current environmental conditions to those during El Niño, teammate Jim Dieckmann and I have been collecting data throughout our trip. We have found that conditions are returning to normal, with median water temperatures of 79.5 degrees F, just slightly above the normal average for March and well below the 84 degrees F March average recorded during last year's El Niño.
To test water quality, We used a Secchi disk to measure water transparency. This tells us how rich the water is in nutrients. In the western part of the archipelago, where penguins are found, the Secchi disk showed the waters to be extremely rich in nutrients, which is good news for penguins.
Due to water temperature and food availability returning to normal, sea lions are breeding and increasing in numbers, blue-footed boobies are nesting again, and even penguins seem to be recovering. Maybe someday I'll get to snorkel with an entire flock of penguins!
P.S. To find out more about penguins and other endangered animals of the Galapagos, see the photos with extended captions in the Classroom Connect photo gallery.
Galapagos volcano eruption forces evacuation of giant tortoises
October 7, 1998
Ecuador OKs protections for Galapagos Islands
March 12, 1998
Tortoise, goat compete for survival on Galapagos Islands
July 17, 1997
Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.