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Day 2: Penguins in decline as climate change decimates food supply

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By Kerry Sanders, NBC News Correspondent

It’s hard to believe when each day of a trip tops the last, but Antarctica was just that: A show-stopper every day.

The weather shifted on our second day. The wind picked up and the temperatures dropped. We hit about 31 degrees, and it started to flurry. But with a steady 17-mph wind, and some gusts into the 30-mph range, it became uncomfortable.  Of course, I was aboard the Quark Expedition ship, a 400-foot long ice-resistant vessel, where it's only a few steps away from the deck to the warmth inside the cabins.

I had hoped to experience a landing at Planeau Bay, but the weather remained uncooperative. We did venture out in choppy two-foot swells by way of the smaller Zodiac vessels.

NBC’s Kerry Sanders takes a look at some of the unusual and fascinating wildlife that inhabits Earth’s coldest continent.

Those inflatable boats are perfect to negotiate the floating ice here. As we slipped by one sizable iceberg I noticed a lazing Leopard seal, about as big as a compact car, plopped on top of the ice. Leopard seals are the second most deadly predator here, behind the killer whale. This one lounged as we neared to within five feet before quickly speeding off, just to be safe.

Vince Genova/NBC News

Leopard seal

Leopard seals eat up to 25 penguins a day, and with so many chicks making their first attempts at swimming in the warmer months, this is prime feeding time. The Adelie penguins had hatched, and soon the chicks would make their first forays into the water for a swim.  They’re birthed on rocks, like all other penguins except the Emperor, which hatches its chicks on snow and ice. 

Nery Ynclan / NBC News

Adelie penguins

The Adelies are facing challenges and scientists blame man, at least in part.

Global climate change here means portions of the Antarctic have less ice, which in turn means there’s less food to eat. Life here depends on the shrimp-like krill, and krill live under the floating ice where they shelter like bees in a hive. Less ice means fewer krill, which in turn means less food for the Adelies, and, as scientists are seeing, a declining population of penguins. In fact, in some spots of Antarctica, 90 percent of the Adelie population has disappeared.

Getting pictures of the Adelie penguins, with the wind and whitecaps kicked up, was a challenge. The salt water spray can ruin a camera within minutes. I was using a plastic Ziploc back to protect my camera when a wind gust grabbed the bag and blew it right out of my hands.

A plastic bag is never good just blowing around, but here, in the pristine nesting grounds of the newborn Adelies, it can look like food. We were able to spin around in the Zodiac and quickly get the bag back on board.

This day, at least, one sign of my intrusion into the stunning environment would not remain.

 

Learn about what you can do to help the penguins at penguinlifelines.org

Day 3: Watch Mother Nature in action