Penguin Postcards and Port Lockroy
by Jodie King
Have you ever gotten to see a penguin in the wild? Have you been on a penguin tourism trip? With the ability to book cheap flights at the touch of a key to beautiful destinations across the world, our access to wildlife is vast and there are very few places left on earth which are untouched by humans. However, not all trips are as glossy as a travel magazine or the serene shots of Instagram, and many horror stories exist surrounding ecotourism. Such as tigers sedated to pose for photographs and tourists allowed to ride endangered elephants.
But have you ever thought about the impact of tourism on wild penguins? There is very little in the media which discusses the impact of our holidays on penguins out in the wild (or on naturalistic reserves). Despite this, there are many articles which list the top destinations to see penguins. For the everyday person trying to book a holiday of a lifetime, it can be confusing to differentiate between activities involving animals that are harmless, those which contribute financially to their conservation, and those that are actually having a negative impact.
Penguin tourism and Port Lockroy
One of the examples that comes to my mind is a post office at Port Lockroy in Antarctica, which has been televised in recent years and is surrounded by a huge colony of Gentoo Penguins. The first base in the harbour was built in 1944 and has been used to accommodate explorers and scientists. However, the Gentoo Penguins did not arrive until 19851. Guests are allowed to visit the museum and base, and also get to see the penguins in their natural habitat. The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust leaves half the island off limits to visitors, to allow breeding success of the penguins to be monitored to investigate the impact of tourism on the colony. Despite having up to 18,000 visitors per season the results reveal no impact on the breeding success of the penguins.
Penguin tourism does affect some penguins negatively
Some reserves however, are seeing an impact, and not for the better. Katiki Point in New Zealand has a reserve which is home to Yellow-eyed Penguins. They have found saddening results that only half the number of chicks were raised in 2014/15 in areas with visitors, compared to colonies close by which were not impacted by tourism2. Nests which were within 10m of the public paths were the most affected. They found that chicks were requiring help with fledging the nest and they were having to assist parent penguins with their annual moult thought to be caused by stress from visitors.
Other research has found similar negative consequences for Yellow-eyed Penguins which are exposed to tourism. The presence of people reduces the amount of time Yellow-eyed Penguins spend preening3, which is really important to help keep their feathers in good condition to maintain the penguin’s ability to stay dry and protected from the elements. Additionally, despite the use of a distance rule at reserves, the space between a penguin and person is strongly related to disturbance behaviour,3 indicating that perhaps 5m is still too close for comfort.
People also come with baggage. Other things need to be considered with tourism in addition to the people themselves. The potential for the spread of pathogens from person to penguin, and the presence of artificial light, so penguins can actually still be viewed when it’s dark are just two of the factors that need to be considered. But scientists are already on it! Surprisingly, they have found that the introduction of artificial light does not detrimentally impact Little Penguins returning to shore each night and in fact the penguins seemed to prefer paths that were well lit4. Regarding disease, in 2005 research looking for infection found no pathogens from humans in eight different bird species in Antarctica5. So hopefully this will continue to be the case.
Not all penguin tourism has effects on penguins
Thankfully, most penguin tourism destinations enact strict rules where visitors are concerned, requiring guests to stay a certain distance away from the birds at all times, keeping disturbance to a minimum, and evoking firm no contact regulations. New methods are constantly being implemented to try and improve tourism with penguins. Philip Island Reserve in Australia who are fortunate enough to witness the Little Penguins returning to the beaches each night5 are continuously improving their facilities. After seeing the impact people were having on the penguins, the reserve has built underground viewing areas and large seating areas a short distance away from the penguins, to try and minimise the impact on the birds, whilst still allowing visitors to get close to the action.
But is this the best solution? Making our interactions with wildlife much more regimented could mean fewer negative consequences, whilst making natural reserves far less natural for the birds themselves. Or are there perhaps other options we are yet to explore?
Do you want to travel to see penguins? If so, has this helped you decide where to go? Also, please help us continue to learn more about penguins by donating to Penguins International.
Check out some of our other blogs, too:
3 FRENCH, R., MULLER, C., CHILVERS, B., & BATTLEY, P. (2019). Behavioural consequences of human disturbance on subantarctic Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes. Bird Conservation International, 29(2), 277-290. doi:10.1017/S0959270918000096
4 Jonas Bonnedahl, Tina Broman, Jonas Waldenström, Helena Palmgren, Taina Niskanen, and Björn Olsen “In Search of Human-associated Bacterial Pathogens in Antarctic Wildlife: Report from Six Penguin Colonies Regularly Visited by Tourists,” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 34(6), 430-432, (1 August 2005). https://doi.org/10.1579/0044-7447-34.6.430
5 Rodríguez, A., Holmberg, R., Dann, P., & Chiaradia, A. (2018). Penguin colony attendance under artificial lights for ecotourism. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology, 329(8-9), 457-464.