Flight Books 399 Seats For Penguins
It had been a frustrating couple of days. Many of us couldn’t get a full nights’ sleep worrying about the penguins and when we could finally be on our way. After evaluating 400 penguins in record-time, the operation was dangling on a tight-rope. Our ride to southern Brazil in a cargo military plane had been put on hold, twice! Twice we started crating penguins and loading them up to trucks, twice we were told to abort the operation. The Air force was having mechanical problems with their Hercules C-130 and flying was impossible.
Every day that passes with these penguins in captivity is a huge disappointment at this point; we know the grave consequences that captivity has on wildlife. You see, penguins are sea creatures; they spend the great majority of their lives swimming and feeding at sea and consequently suffer after long periods of time ashore. They not only look awkward and innocent as they waddle from one place to the other but sure enough, land-locked life takes a physical toll on penguins, namely on their feet which quickly grow blisters, swell up and easily get infected. Standing or lying on their feces also leads to deterioration in their feathered cover destroying their waterproofing abilities.
The teams have worked hard for months and have accomplished a great feat, saving more than 400 penguins from certain death. What does this mean? Well, Magellanic penguins are by no means a healthy and sustainable species. Their population is in decline as overfishing near their breeding colonies in the tip of South America is depleting their food source and chronic oiling takes the life of hundreds, sometimes thousands each year. When more than a thousand penguins stranded along the Brazilian coast, immediate action to save as many as possible was not only the humane thing to do, but also an important step to keep species population numbers as high as possible for Magellanic Penguins.
This time it wasn’t oil or overfishing that got to them, it was a variation in the ocean’s temperature. It’s still unclear what exactly has led to this increase in water temperature, many point the finger at global warming. The fact is, these young and inexperienced penguins got lost, and when they did, they could no longer find their food. They followed a current of water that failed to provide the instinctive warning system that induces a penguin to turn back and swim south again. So, in essence they were starving to death and washed ashore to die.
Now, with a monumental helping hand from humans, rehabilitated birds were ready to go back to the wild. The snag was that they needed to fly thousands of kilometers south to even have a chance at making it back to their breeding grounds in the southern tip of South America, close to Antarctica.
The crew suffered every minute of suspense, what would we do if we couldn’t fly them down? The call finally came at 9:00pm and the message was short and simple, the plane had left Rio de Janeiro and was going to touch down in Salvador, so get your penguins on now because it is leaving 40 minutes past midnight!
The flight covered more than 2500 kilometers and arrived to Pelotas, Brazil, a city close to the Uruguayan border, around 6:00am.
Accompanied by 399 - until then ‘flight-less’ birds – we huddled closely together in a cramped seating area, facing sideways as we hurled up to 30,000 ft. Once we were airborne the anxiety ended. I glanced at the faces of my extenuated friends and colleagues and beneath those tired eyes I saw a cheerful crowd, well-aware of how special this moment truly was.
The hours passed and it was hard to sleep, partly because there is still so much work ahead of us that my mind is racing, partly because a penguin in the crate next to me sneezes on me every 10 to 15 minutes. I first get irritated by its blatant disrespect but soon after start to worry that he or she might be catching a cold.
With the first light of day our plane finally touches down with 399 safe penguins. We are all happy to arrive but there is still a lot of work ahead of us to make sure the penguins are healthy enough to return to the sea. Tomorrow’s release will be the largest penguin release ever in this side of the globe. This is a huge victory for Magellanic penguins and for everyone involved in this operation.
As always I am truly grateful to IFAW supporters for giving us the opportunity to be flying in the middle of the night on a shaky and noisy military cargo plane with no air-conditioning, no toilet and packed with 399 smelly penguins on their way to freedom, one couldn’t really ask for more.