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Full EpisodePenguin Post Office

Antarctica’s most popular tourist destination is a unique British post office located in the heart of the Antarctic Peninsula at Port Lockroy, about 700 miles south of Argentina and Chile. Enthusiastic cruise ship passengers from around the world come ashore throughout the Antarctic summer to see the colony of 3,000 gentoo penguins that takes up residence each year alongside Port Lockroy’s other summer inhabitants – the post office staff.

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NARRATOR: Every summer, tens of thousands of tourists flock to a uniquely British outpost on the Antarctic Peninsula.

They're drawn here by the spectacle of gentoo penguins and a post office from which they can send a postcard home.

The post office is staffed by a dedicated team who, over the next four months, will live as neighbors to these extraordinary birds.

But the penguin's story is not always picture-postcard.

Infighting... marital squabbles... and daylight robbery are routine.

And growing chicks must overcome many hurdles if they are to survive to adulthood.

This unusual backdrop, where people and penguins live 'cheek by beak,' offers an intimate view into the life of one of the world's most loved birds.

Welcome to Penguin Post Office.

NARRATOR: It's early November -- summer on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Some 3,000 gentoo penguins are returning from an intensive spell of deep-sea fishing to their breeding grounds at Port Lockroy.

The gentoos are in a rush to establish nest sites.

The longer days and warmer temperatures encourage the penguins to start the business of finding a mate to breed and raise young.

Many will have to walk the best part of two miles in search of a suitable nest site -- an arduous journey for a bird with big feet and very short legs.

But what makes this colony of gentoos particularly unusual is that every year they choose to take up residence alongside Port Lockroy's other summer inhabitants... people.

An advance party from the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust has arrived at Port Lockroy in preparation for the forthcoming tourist season.

This year, the water surrounding their island base is still frozen solid, and so, like the penguins, they take a path across the sea ice.

Their destination is a remote British outpost with an extraordinary history.

Today, it's the most popular tourist attraction in Antarctica... the big draw being penguins and the Penguin Post Office.

TUDOR: Welcome to Port Lockroy!

NARRATOR: Port Lockroy is about 700 miles to the south of Argentina and Chile and lies in the heart of the Antarctic Peninsula, which forms the northernmost part of mainland Antarctica.

Here on the island, this building houses the world's most southerly public post office... a charitable gift shop that supports a number of Antarctic heritage sites... and a museum dedicated to Port Lockroy's unique history.

[Big band plays] In 1943, the British established a research center for the upper atmosphere.

And their work proved crucial in the development of high-frequency radio communications.

The base also acted as a post office to help enforce Britain's territorial claim on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Once open for business, occasional passing ships would deliver letters back to the UK from the residents of Port Lockroy.

The base was continuously manned by scientists from 1943 until it was closed in 1959.

The men worked a 33-month tour of duty, which included two very long, harsh winters when there were no visiting ships.

[Penguins calling] And back then, there were no visiting gentoo penguins, either.

They arrived on the island after the scientists had left, and over the past fifty years, as the climate in Antarctica has warmed, the snow has started to melt earlier in the season, giving the gentoo penguins new nest sites among the rocks.

But this year, there is more snow than usual, and the post office team have some hard work ahead of them to clear the entrance to their accommodation hut.

They will soon be welcoming thousands of tourists from passing cruise ships to the museum, gift shop, and post office.

KRISTY LEISSLE: For me, it's really about the opportunity to immerse in this environment and spend a good amount of time here, a whole season here, and see all of the changes that happen from November until March.

And so many things do change.

The penguins arrive, they mate, they lay eggs, the eggs hatch, the chicks fledge, and then they go.

And seeing that, you know, who gets to see that?

I mean, I never watch a bird go through its whole entire life cycle.

And here I'll get to do that, and with a penguin, which is, you know, a pretty cool bird.

NARRATOR: Most gentoos remain faithful to their partners for life, and now the penguins have started their courting rituals.

Underneath the Union Jack, a pair have claimed their regular nesting spot and reaffirm their bond by bowing heads.

Down at the boat shed, another couple gets reacquainted.

All over the island, gentoos are preparing to breed.

This year will be particularly busy at Port Lockroy, as up to ten members of staff will come and go.

The core post office team consists of four women, led by Helen, who first came here six years ago.

HELEN ANNAN: The first time I came here, it was just somewhere I'd always wanted to visit.

I just love going to wild places.

I was just drawn by the remoteness of it and the hardness of living here, the cold and the difficulties and the fact that even though we're living in a lovely, warm building, we're still camping, basically, in a hut.

We're camping.

We've got no running water.

It's very basic.

NARRATOR: The chance to work in Antarctica offered Jane, who trained as a lawyer in England, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

People at home just are amazed that, you know, I'm lucky enough to have this opportunity, really.

They, they think it's great.

They think I'm mad, because I'm always cold, so I'll just be freezing here!

But to start with, you just can't believe it.

Everywhere you look, there's a penguin, so it takes a little bit of a while to, to adjust to that, and then once you do, it's just this constant source of entertainment, you know, with their everyday goings-on and the ins and outs and activity in the colonies.

It's, it's really, really good.

NARRATOR: Back at the water's edge, some of the gentoos are bringing pebbles ashore from the sea bed.

There are no trees on Antarctica, so instead of using twigs or leaves to build nests, these penguins make theirs from small stones.

Picking out the best one and carrying it all the way to the nest site is the penguin equivalent of giving a loved one a box of chocolates.

During the summer months, Port Lockroy is under almost 24-hour daylight, and the sea ice is finally starting to break up.

Outside the post office, the couple under the Union Jack are busy building up their nest.

Down behind the boat shed, this pair of penguins is well ahead of the game.

They've lucked out and have found an old nest, already free of snow.

Over the past week, they've been adding new stones, piling them one on top of the other, to create good drainage from snow and rain.

A dry nest is essential if these birds are to have any success in raising young.

Penguins are fiercely protective of their pile of stones, and because nests are so tightly packed together in the colony, neighborly disputes constantly break out... and a nest left unattended for more than a few seconds is in danger of being stolen.

A large cruise ship has arrived in the bay.

Tourists from all over the world have each paid thousands of dollars to be here.

ANNAN: Coming to Antarctica is, for a lot of them, it's a lifelong ambition.

You know, it's a dream they've had.

Many of the people on the ships are fairly elderly, and they say, 'I've wanted to do this all my life.'

NARRATOR: Coming ashore is a chance for close-up photos of gentoos, as long as everyone observes the golden rule, not to get closer than 15 feet so as to avoid disturbing the birds.

Inside the post office there's a plethora of penguin-themed mementos and gifts.

The appeal is so great that some people part with over $1,000 in a single shopping spree.

But above all, everyone delights in the simple act of sending a postcard from the Penguin Post Office.

WOMAN: To find a little bit of Britain tucked away here in the Antarctic is, it's wonderful, just wonderful.

COOPER: It's a surprise to people that they can be so far away from home, and it seems so strange in so many other respects, and yet here's this familiar concept of a post office and the chance to keep in touch.

MAN: We're writing to our daughters.

I don't know what you're planning to say.

[Laughing] WOMAN: I'm just planning to tell them this is a fantastic place to be.

'To my darling family -- It is so hard to describe this amazing place.

I really am at the end of the world -- snow, wind, and penguins all around.

What an adventure we are having!'

MAN: These cards are to ourselves!

[Laughing] NARRATOR: Almost everything has a penguin on it, including the specially designed stamps that take postcards the world over.

The gentoo colony that surrounds the post office makes a great impression.

You could just watch them for hours, because their antics are just so adorable.

WOMAN: I think I have about 800 pictures of penguins on my camera, and I don't want to delete one of them.

NARRATOR: But in spite of their comic appeal, gentoos are not always as innocent as they look, and given half a chance, they'll cheat on their partner.

Back by the boat shed, a female returns to her nest site to find her partner has been up to no good.

Another lady has taken her place, and she's not going to stand for it.

She viciously attacks the unwelcome female while the unfaithful male looks on.

Finally, she returns and reprimands her partner.

He gets it in the neck for his philandering ways.

Penguins are prolific lovers and mate frequently throughout the summer.

The male bows to his partner and appears to arouse her by flapping his flippers.

If the female submits to his charms, she lies down, and the male mounts her back.

For the male, it's an acrobatic balancing act to stay on top.

When the moment's right, the pair briefly rub their private parts together, allowing the male to transfer sperm by a process known as a 'cloacal kiss.'

If the egg is successfully fertilized, a chick will be expected in around two months' time.

But things don't always go exactly according to plan.

It's approaching the end of November, and the penguin pair that was ahead of the game with building their nest are among the first on the island to be sitting on eggs.

A few days later, eggs also appear in the nest under the Union Jack.

Most females lay a clutch of two -- each coated by a thick shell to protect them from cracking against the stones.

In the Antarctic, keeping eggs at a constant 95 degrees Fahrenheit poses a real challenge.

But both male and female, who share in incubation duties, have a brood pouch, a hollow area of bare skin that's lined with blood vessels, to transfer heat from parent to egg.

For the next month, they will continually turn their eggs to ensure that heat is evenly distributed, giving the developing chick the best chance of survival.

Now that they're sitting on eggs, the post office penguins face the challenge of protecting them from predators.

Skuas are formidable adversaries.

They launch surprise attacks, dive-bombing the penguins from the air.

Despite brave attempts to drive this skua away, repeated aerial assaults have caused an egg to be dislodged from the nest of a panicking penguin.

The skua gets its reward.

Unlucky parents who lose their eggs to skuas will have to wait another year for their next chance to raise young.

During this period of incubating eggs, one adult always stays on the nest, keeping eggs warm and defending them from predators, while the other is away fishing.

Now the nest stones are easy pickings for thieving penguins.

At the boat shed, stone pilfering is rife, and one sly penguin is proving particularly adept at robbing the neighbors.

Throughout the colony, stone after stone is pinched and taken back to the nest.

All penguins have criminal tendencies, and over the course of the breeding season, thousands of pebbles will be stolen and re-stolen in the competition to keep up the largest family pile.

It's now the height of summer and the peak of the Antarctic tourist season.

The post office penguins don't appear the least bothered by the presence of people and seem perfectly happy to pose for photographs.

With an average of two ship visits a day, there are a lot of postcards to be processed.

But for Kristy, who is taking a sabbatical from teaching at the University of Washington, the chance to work in Antarctica is a welcome break from academia.

So, we hand-frank everything here at Port Lockroy.

This year we'll do probably between 60,000 and 80,000 postcards by hand like this.

It's kind of relaxing.

It's probably one of my favorite things that I do here, actually.

People write about penguins.

They're always writing about penguins.

And so many people send messages of, of love, really, you know, just love to their family and their friends.

I think that's because this place really is romantic in a very wild kind of way, and that's what people are trying to capture, and they only have a couple of lines on a postcard.

And so, they'll often just say things like, 'This is magical,' you know, and, 'It's a dream come true,' and 'It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience,' and I agree with them fully.

It is pretty magical here.

NARRATOR: It's not just the post office and penguins that draw people here.

Scenically, the Antarctic Peninsula is by far the most dramatic region of the continent.

And it also provides a rich diversity of wildlife.

The Peninsula is an extension of the South American Andes, forming a coastal spine of mountains whose jagged peaks rise straight out of the ocean.

This otherworldly landscape of glaciers and ice casts a spell on all those that have the good fortune to visit.

COOPER: Living in the Antarctic is really hard to describe.

The colors here... it's just hues of blue and gray and white, and very bright, even on a dull day.

You hear the waves on the beach or you hear the calls of the birds or the sounds of the weather -- the snow or the hail.

It's just the nearest thing I could imagine to being on another planet, on our planet.

NARRATOR: It's the end of December, and over the past 24 hours, the first gentoo chick on the island, with the aid of a sharp little egg tooth on the tip of its beak, has been slowly breaking free of its egg.

Weighing just three ounces, this vulnerable newly hatched chick is born blind to the world.

Emerging from the egg has been an exhausting process, and the chick barely has the strength to hold up its head.

With just a thin layer of down, the chick has no means of regulating heat, so for the next two weeks it will be completely reliant on its parents to provide warmth.

[Peeping] Seconds after hatching, the chick instinctively makes repeated begging calls to be fed, which the parent answers by regurgitating food from its stomach.

Within a day, the second egg will hatch.

But even that short time to feed and gain weight gives the firstborn a considerable head start over its sibling in the race for survival.

Now that there are hungry mouths to feed, parent penguins take turns going on day-long fishing trips that can take them as far as ten miles from the colony.

But with super-streamlined bodies and immensely powerful flippers, they literally fly through water.

Forage dives lasting up to three minutes can take them to depths exceeding 600 feet.

They reach speeds in excess of 20 miles an hour, making them the fastest swimming birds on Earth.

The penguins' main quarry is krill -- small crustaceans that form immense swarms and underpin all life in the Antarctic.

Within a week of the first hatching, most of the other eggs on the island have also hatched, and the majority of nests have two chicks demanding round-the-clock attention.

Because the summer season is so short, the chicks need to grow fast to survive the cold months ahead, so in just three weeks, they're likely to quadruple in size.

Competition between chicks is fierce, and if food becomes scarce, the parents will favor the strongest chick, leaving the weaker one to perish.

At this stage of their development, the chicks are vulnerable to attack from skuas, and the penguin parents are on high alert.

Penguin chicks are now a prized source of food for the skuas, and hunting intensifies.

The skua is a dogged opponent, continually surveying the colony for a chance of a quick kill.

For this unlucky chick, it's a gruesome end as the skua attempts to swallow it whole.

It's now mid-January, and the chicks are quickly growing.

Now too big to fit under the parent, they're starting to discover there's a world beyond the nest.

Down behind the boat shed, this plucky little fellow, still a couple of months from learning the true purpose of flippers, is taking his first uncertain steps towards independence.

Soon the chick is given a very valuable lesson.

Don't annoy the neighbors!

For now, chicks won't dare venture far from the nest.

But even the shortest excursion provides plenty of opportunity to practice the tricky art of rock climbing.

Food is still by far the biggest preoccupation, but, instead of just being fed on demand, the chicks are now being made to work for it.

The parent, forcing its chicks to chase it to be fed, encourages competition, where the strongest and most determined gets fed first.

Chasing their parents also helps the chicks build up strength in preparation for the time when they'll need to fend for themselves.

By adulthood, penguins become such fast runners that over short distances, they can outrun a human.

[Wind gusting] A strong wind has brought blizzard conditions to Port Lockroy... But the rough weather hasn't deterred the tourists, who've taken refuge in the post office to buy penguin paraphernalia and send postcards home.

I wrote a postcard to ourselves, and I said that... [Speaks Chinese] In Chinese, which means, 'We landed here in blizzard, so best wishes from the end of the world!'

That's all.

WOMAN: 'Dear Dad, Writing this card from the great south land, Antarctica, freezing conditions, penguins, snowing, rough seas, unbelievable and spectacular scenery.'

WOMAN: The penguins are just completely soaking it all up, loving this weather, so it really provides perspective.

They are adapted to be here, and we are not.

NARRATOR: As the weeks go by, curiosity and the strong urge to explore is taking the chicks farther and farther from the nest.

As they run the gauntlet of the colony and enter neighboring territories, the chicks are repeatedly bullied and harassed.

One chick has fallen victim to a vicious assault.

Although it's been bloodied and is now severely weakened, the adults' attack is unrelenting.

This distressing behavior is rarely witnessed, so we can only speculate why it's occurred.

Perhaps it shows the extreme lengths the penguins will go to in order to defend their territory.

The dead chick's sibling returns and lays its head down on the corpse as if mourning the loss of its companion.

At a nearby skua's nest, an empty shell is obvious evidence that there's been a recent hatching.

This ball of fluff will stay under the protection of its parent's wing only for a couple of days.

After this short time, it will leave the nest and take refuge in the nearby rocks, freeing both parents to forage for food.

When it comes to feeding time, the adult returning from a successful hunt lands a good distance from the nest so as not to reveal its location to predators, like giant petrels or even other skuas.

Surprisingly agile, the chick clambers across the rocks by instinct to get its reward of food.

The male regurgitates the contents of his stomach, presenting the chick with semi-digested fish.

The female, who has spent so much time on the nest brooding the chick, shares in the spoils.

This year, her other egg will fail, and this chick will be their only offspring.

It's now the beginning of February, and with the tourist season still in full swing, the chicks are starting to gang together in nursery groups called 'crèches.'

They need to stick together because their parents are now spending long periods at sea foraging for food.

The chicks now have a very healthy appetite, and the parents have to work hard to meet the ever-growing demand.

But what goes in one end... comes out the other.

LEISSLE: I do love the penguins, but it is not all, um... They poop a lot!

NARRATOR: And with so many pooping chicks on the loose, it's a constant battle for the post office workers.

ANNAN: Living with the penguins does cause us some challenges, you know, the smell and the mess.

I mean, the penguins are constantly pooping everywhere.

We have a path, a rocky path, that leads up to the base, and all our passengers, all the visitors walk up this path, and we have to keep that clean, so that not too much gets walked into the base.

So every morning we collect buckets of seawater from the sea and scrub the rocks clean.

COOPER: We don't, honestly, really notice the smell, but everybody else does, so it can be quite funny when you're in the post office and one of the passengers will say, 'Do you, you know, how do you cope with the smell of the penguins?'

And the first thought that goes through your mind is, 'I can't really smell the penguins,' and I think we just, we absorb their smell too, so we all smell together, come the end of the season.

NARRATOR: Just like lazy teenagers, the chicks are quite happy to sit around while all the work's being done.

It's late February, and the chicks are beginning to look a bit like punks with Mohican hairdos.

They are molting, quickly losing their downy baby fluff for adult plumage.

Soon the chicks will be indistinguishable from their parents.

As winter approaches, it won't be long before they are ready to enter the water.

The chicks are also beginning to congregate in much bigger groups.

Ganging together provides safety in numbers, making them far less vulnerable to predation.

A skua tries its luck.

The chicks flee but continue to stick together in tight formation.

Not deterred, the skua persists, harassing the chicks on the off chance it will be able to pick off a weak one.

But as the chase continues, the tables start to turn.

The chicks gain confidence, and as a united front they start to chase the skua.

A valuable lesson.

When you're a penguin, it's best to stick with the crowd.

While the post office workers take care of some much-needed pre-winter maintenance, the chicks are beginning to discover a new element, water.

The young ones are curious, though they seem a little nervous about getting their feet wet.

But hunger is a powerful incentive, and to encourage chicks to take the plunge, parent penguins draw them down to the water's edge with a familiar chase for food.

Once they enter the water, the chicks have to learn how to swim by trial and error.

Soon the chicks will be feeding themselves and will at last gain full independence from their parents.

It's the beginning of March, and winter is fast approaching.

The tourist season has ended, and the post office workers are dispatching the last post.

It's a day of reflection, as this is also the day that the team is packing up and leaving Port Lockroy for home.

LEISSLE: Being in this environment for so long, really, I think we get a sense of what life is in Antarctica, not for us, because we're not meant to be here, really, as people, but for the creatures that evolved to be in this environment, and to bear witness to that is very, very special.

NARRATOR: The team has chosen one of the worst days of the season to leave the island, and as they struggle against storm-force winds to take down the Union Jack, their thoughts inevitably turn towards home.

ANNAN: I think we're all looking forward to getting back to certain things at home, but we'll all go back with a different outlook on life.

The experience of coming here is, you know, is life-changing.

It takes you back to, to what's really important in life, you know.

It takes you down to the bare essentials and makes you realize that all the stuff you think you need at home, you actually don't, and that's -- you know, it is refreshing.

[Laughing and chatting] NARRATOR: The team is heading to a nearby cruise ship, which will take them to South America.

For the next seven months, the base will remain unoccupied until a new group of volunteers returns and opens up the post office for another summer season of tourism.

ANNAN: It does cast a spell on you.

when you go home.

It leaves a lasting impression on you, and it's very hard to not want to come back.

I know that I will want to come back in some way at some point.

[Calling] NARRATOR: But over the winter, the penguins remain around Port Lockroy, and these tough, resilient birds will brave many months of brutal sub-zero temperatures.

Soon all the fully grown chicks will join their parents on regular long-distance fishing trips, where finally they'll become masters of their Antarctic home.

Then, next summer, in huge numbers, the penguins will gather once more to meet their mates, claim their nests, and raise their chicks at the Penguin Post Office.

claim their nests, and raise their chicks ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ To learn more about what you've seen on this 'Nature' program, visit pbs.org.

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