"To see an Emperor Penguin against the polar landscape is to glimpse the primeval," writes Roger Tory Peterson in his book Penguins. But the three chubby specimens we encountered on the edge of the Ross Sea one afternoon looked more like gentlemen out for a jaunt, dressed for a black-tie dinner.
Their dark feathers silhouetted against the gleaming seal ice, the three strolled amiably toward out helicopter, as curious about us as we about them. Penguins have little fear of humans, since they have no land-based predators.
From time to time, one wanders down the main street of McMurdo, Antarctica's largest station, causing scientists, Navy mechanics and government secretaries to pour out of the barracks for a view.
Out on the ice, our 3-foot-tall friends obligingly performed their penguin rituals, preening, squawking, flapping their ridiculous flipperwings and tobogganing on their bellies. They swung their heads from side to side to get a better view of the strange creatures bundled up in bright red parkas and rubber bunny boots. Penguins have wallsided heads, like Egyptian sphinxes, so they can't look straight ahead out of both eyes at the same time.
Emperors are the most Antarctic of the 17 penguin species, as Peterson describes them. The female lays her single egg in the dead of winter, when it is night round the clock and the temperature dips to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Immediately she dives back into the ocean, leaving the male to incubate the egg for the next two months, during which time he fasts, losing a third of his body weight. The female returns just before the egg hatches, but the male usually gives the chick its first meal, a rich liquid from his esophagus.
A few miles from the three penguins, 800-pound Weddell seals and their pups have congregated in pairs along the cracks in the sea ice. Lounging in the brilliant sunlight, they snap at each others' noses in greeting, bare their teeth and send their deep-throated groans toward the sky.
Occasionally, a male, waiting for nursing to end and mating to begin, sticks his head through a slushy hole in the ice. Seals can dive to 1,600 feet by cutting off circulation to all parts of their bodies except their brains and lungs.
Scientists here have used radio transmitters and underwater television to study seals. One researcher discovered that the Weddels, who sound like rockets when they dive beneath the ice, have 40 calls.
Each species has distinctive courtship behavior. Weddells return to the same place to breed year after year, and the males battle each other under the sea ice waiting for a female.
Crabeater seals, on the other hand, float through the ocean on random icebergs. When a cruising male finds a female, he sticks with her, defending her in bloody battles with other males until she is ready to mate.