There are six species of rockhopper penguins, all belonging to the genus Eudyptes. They are medium-sized penguins with distinctive yellow feathers over their eyes so they are also known as crested penguins, Like eyebrows, these feathers can be used to express surprise, anger and other emotions by being raised or flattened in the appropriate situations.
For the most part, rockhopper penguins breed on subantarctic islands. They spend the rest of their lives at sea, being little feathered swimming machines. They grow fat on fish and then head to rocky islands where they earn their name, rockhopper, by negotiating the intertidal zones on their fat pink feet. Some breed in colonies while others head underground to have their chicks.
The largest rockhopper is the Macaroni penguin, found on the Antarctic peninsula and some subantarctic islands in large, gregarious colonies. The closely related Royal penguin is the only crested penguin with a white throat. Its main breeding ground is Macquarie Island where over 2 million birds come ashore to nest each year. The other four species are the Rockhopper, the Erect-Crested, the Snares Crested and the Fjordland Crested Penguin.
The species that I got to know pesonally is the Fjordland Crested penguin, Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, which breeds on the southwest part of the South Island of New Zealand. I was studying spiders on a small island off the west coast where I was also fascinated by the behaviour of the penguins. My first sight of these birds was watching them scramble ashore across the rocks and the fur seals, who would growl and threaten the penguins but otherwise let them pass. The penguins were funny to watch because they are fat and awkward on land after months at sea. Their black and white tuxedos gave them a serious air that is belied by their fat pink feet, their awkward stumbling gait across the rocks and those absurd yellow eyebrows that go erect whenever the penguin is upset. They staggered up the beach and then headed off into the bush. Where were they going?
I followed them to find out. To my surprise, they were looking for little caves along the small streams of the island. The caves shone with the cold blue lights of New Zealand glow-worms. The penguins huddled in pairs in their little shelters and they raised their eyebrows threateningly whenever I came too close. After a few weeks, the penguins emerged from their burrows, followed by fluffy black chicks. The parents took turns watching their chick while the other parent went to sea to feed and bring fish back to the baby. The parents were fiercely protective. I picked up a chick that had gotten caught in a crevice and the parents attacked me with eyebrows raised and flippers out. Since they barely came up to my knees, it was a brave act on their part.
So much of a penquin’s life is spent at sea that their lives remain a mystery to us. They face many dangers there, including sharks, killer whales and leopard seals. When walking on the beach once, I found the body of a penguin. It had been turned inside out by its attacker, probably a leopard seal, which had bitten its stomach and pulled it inside out to get out to get at the meat, leaving behind a perfect penquin skin. What a way to go! Yet these little birds survive and thrive in this harsh unforgiving environment, swimming thousands of kilometers in search of fish. Their bodies are fat to protect them from the cold. The feathers are close packed and thick as an additional protection from frigid antarctic waters. They must be quick and clever to catch their food and escape from predators.
On shore, they show that brave streak in their behaviour towards fur seals and humans. They are warm and loving to their mates and offspring but feisty to each other. They use their eyebrows, their eyes and beaks and flippers to express their emotions, from love to annoyance to anger. I left that island with a profound respect for these strange, funny and beautiful denizens of the Great Southern Ocean and the tiny islands that dot its endless expanse.