July 28, 2021

The Yellow Penguin of South Georgia Island

South Georgia Island is one of the world’s most remote locations. It has a surprisingly lively history, and one remarkable current resident: the world’s only Yellow Penguin.

The island is situated in the South Atlantic Ocean, between South America and Antarctica. It’s an isolated spot surrounded by rough seas, a difficult place to find and visit.

South Georgia was first sighted in 1675, by English sea captain Anthony de la Roche. De la Roche was a merchant seaman returning to Europe, when he was caught in a storm rounding Cape Horn.

His ship was blown far off course to the east of the continent. When the weather abated, he realised he was lost.

Voyage of Anthony de la Roche
Off course: Anthony de la Roche’s route

A previously unknown island was then sighted, de la Roche anchoring in an icy, fjord-like harbour.

The terrain was inhospitable, and conditions tough.

After a few weeks, de la Roche was able to repair his ship, and eventually made his way back to the Brazilian port of Salvador. He reported his new discovery and named it after himself: Roche Island.

The second voyage of Captain Cook
The second voyage of Captain Cook

In 1772, Captain James Cook set out on the second of his famous, round the world voyages.

The Royal Society had tasked him with trying to determine if a long suspected southern continent was a real entity, and he was to search the southern oceans for it. Australia and New Zealand were known by this time, but many scientists thought a much larger land mass existed, further south.

Cook left England in July 1772.

He crossed the Antarctic Circle in January 1773, the first expedition to do so, and would then spend three years exploring the southern oceans. Stopovers included Easter Island, Tierra del Fuego, and a circumnavigation of New Zealand (another first).

Sketch of South Georgia Island from Captain Cook's expedition
Sketch of South Georgia Island, 1775

Early in 1775, on the return voyage to England, Cook landed at Roche Island.

Unaware that it had been previously discovered, and named, he claimed it for the United Kingdom. Cook renamed it South Georgia Island, after the British King, George III.

While Cook’s attempts to discover a great Southern continent had not been successful, he believed that he had seen enough evidence to confirm its existence. His ships had encountered icebergs in the far reaches, which he felt could only have come from a significant landmass.

His suspicion was confirmed in 1820, when Antarctica was sighted by Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen.

South Georgia Island form space
South Georgia Island from space

South Georgia Island’s location and climate make human habitation difficult.

While it’s size – 165 x 35 km – is substantial, the seas surrounding it are treacherous, and the island itself is snowbound for most of the year. There is no native human population.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, whalers established rough accommodations on the island, and used it as a seasonal base. But the difficulty in reaching such a remote spot meant its viability for commercial fishing was limited.

In the 20th century, a more substantive human presence was established; the British government maintains a science station on the island, a handful of scientists rotating through the outpost each year.

Their presence even lead to a military confrontation.

Science station, South Georgia Island
Science station

The nearest land to South Georgia Island is the Falkland Islands, a disputed territory claimed by both England and Argentina. This dispute escalated to a short war in 1982, as the Argentinian military landed troops on the Falkland Islands, and England sent their own forces to expel them.

At the same time, Argentina also landed a handful of soldiers on South Georgia Island, and took the scientists there captive.

Both were returned to English rule after a month of fighting, although Argentina maintains a formal claim to both.

Fur seal pups on South Georgia Island
Fur seal pups on South Georgia Island

While South Georgia Island is not very hospitable to humans, it is a haven for wildlife.

The island is home to an astonishing 2 million fur seals, around 95% of the world’s population. More than 70 species of birds can be found, many of them endangered, ranging from small petrels, to giant albatrosses. And the surrounding waters are flush with sea life, and provide the summer home for humpback whales.

But the island is perhaps best known for its gigantic penguin colonies.

A vast penguin colony on South Georgia Island
A vast penguin colony on South Georgia Island

About 7 million penguins live on South Georgia Island, comprising three main species; Macaroni, King, and Gentoo.

The size of such groups is difficult to visualise, but they entirely cover the beaches on the island, each colony comprising around 100 000 pairs. Wildlife photographers, scientists, and a growing number of tourists, come every summer to view them.

Early in 2021, a Belgian photographer, Yves Adams, was visiting the island when he saw an incredible sight: among a group of King penguins swimming nearby, a bright yellow bird suddenly appeared.

A King penguin and chick
A King penguin and chick

The King penguin is the second largest penguin species, after the Emperor.

Both species share a few traits. They live only in remote locations in the southern ocean; the coast of Antarctica, and nearby islands. Both also share a famous breeding ritual, incubating their eggs by standing over them, and covering them with a flap of skin. Unlike the Emperor penguins though, where the male completes this task alone, King penguin parents share this duty.

King penguins entirely live on a diet of fish. They are adept swimmers, almost impervious to cold, so well suited to their icy environment that their numbers are increasing.

They have a classic colouration, with a flourish; a white torso, black back and wings, and then a gold yellow band around their neck.

Yellow Penguin of South Georgia Island
Yellow Penguin of South Georgia Island

Yves Adams approached South Georgia Island on a ‘wild’ day, where the weather made landing difficult.

Eventually, he made the beach, and began to photograph the animals around him, thousands of seals, birds and penguins. All of a sudden: a flash of yellow.

‘Among the chaos of animals, a strange pale penguin.

 

The yellow penguin swam to shore just in front of us. It gave a little show – flicked water off its feathers, walked up the sand, and entered a colony of king penguins.’

 

– Adam Yves

Considering the size of the colony, and volume of animals, the photographer was incredibly lucky to witness this unique scene. Unusually coloured penguins are not unknown, but are exceedingly rare.

South Georgia Island: yellow penguin

Adams’ photographs of the bird quickly went viral. Scientists were puzzled by the yellow penguin, and different theories were advanced to explain its colour variation.

It was initially thought that the bird could be an albino. Albinism is a genetic condition where pigment is absent from an animal, giving their exterior a pale, ethereal aspect, and is found in many species.

A more complex theory suggests that the bird could be suffering from a lack of melanin.

Yellow Penguin

Melanin is a common skin pigment that performs several functions, including protection from the sun’s ultra violet rays.

In penguins, melanin provides the black colouration to their feathers, and a sufficient level is thought to be needed to keep the feathers healthy. Penguins rely on their feathers for insulation; they are both waterproof and trap a layer of heat.

Several known conditions can impair the level of melanin in a penguin; Leucism, where the melanin producing cells are absent, and Ino, where they exist but do not function properly.

If the yellow penguin is suffering from either of these conditions, its chances for survival could be impaired. But scientists disagree on both the cause of the penguin’s colouring, and its chances:

‘Contrary to popular belief, most aberrant coloured birds survive well in the wild.’

 

– Hein van Grouw, curator at the UK Natural History Museum

Hidden among millions of black penguins, in one of the world’s remote corners, The Yellow Penguin of South Georgia Island remains an elusive natural wonder.

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