For more than half a century, Dr Dee Boersma has worked to conserve penguin colonies across the world. But her career began in the Galápagos, studying a colony of penguins uniquely adapted to life on the unpredictable archipelago.
Penguins are amazing creatures. They wind my clock. I’m in love with penguins! They walk upright—I mean, they’re like little people. This is my fifty-first year working on penguins. I never expected that this was going to be my lifetime’s work. In fact, if somebody had told me that, I would have said, “No way. I’m not going to do that.” But I just find them endlessly fascinating.
I didn’t fall in love with penguins immediately. I was really more interested in the Galápagos because I’d read a lot about it. I knew that Darwin had gone there and that it had been formative for him, in terms of Darwin’s finches and all these odd creatures. I’d read Dr. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s books on marine iguanas, these weird lizards that go and forage in the sea. And when I found out that there were penguins in the Galápagos—Darwin never even saw Galápagos penguins—I thought, “What’s a penguin doing living on the equator?”
After I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I looked around to see who was working in the Galápagos. The only person that I really found close by was a guy named Paul Colinvaux, who was at Ohio State. So, I went to Ohio State. With Paul Colinvaux, it was like going to talk to Winston Churchill. He had a British accent and was an intimidating kind of guy, but very helpful. I’d only been there like a month and a half when I went in for my weekly conference and he said, “So, you’ve been here a while. What do you want to do your dissertation on?” I didn’t feel like I could say, “I don’t know, I just want to work in the Galápagos.” But I just knew I had to say something. So, I said, “Galápagos penguins.” And he said, “Fine topic. Next week, come back and tell me exactly what you’re going to do.”
I thought, “What’s a penguin doing living on the equator?”
I was so relieved to get out of there. I went to the library and spent the next week reading everything that I could find about Galápagos penguins, which was, like, practically zilch. There were two reports in the literature of Galápagos penguins: one was incubating eggs on the thirtieth of June and the other one, it was small chicks like on the second of July. So, I thought, “Okay, I got to go to the Galápagos at the end of June or July.”
The penguins bred the first time I was down there. But then the next time I went down, nobody’s breeding. And then they did breed, but everyone failed. So, I ended up doing some papers on marine iguanas. You’re down there for three months, what are you going to do? It became really interesting to me: Why aren’t these penguins breeding? What’s happening here?
Galápagos penguins are most closely related to Humboldt penguins, which nest mostly on the coast of Peru. It is assumed that a few Humboldt penguins got out to the Galápagos, maybe on the Humboldt Current, and found enough food on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela to survive and successfully breed—particularly in La Niña conditions. The strong upwelling and cold, nutrient-rich waters make it a good place for penguins and fur seals to thrive.
Right now, as we’re talking, there is a wonderful La Niña event, which is a cold water event. That’s good for Galápagos penguins. That’s when they’re going to breed. They’ve been breeding since the last time I was in the Galápagos, which was around a year ago in February. I got out of the Galápagos two days before COVID shut it down. I was pretty lucky. But they were breeding then, and they’ve just continued to breed, I’m pretty sure. And I think they’re going to continue to breed. I hope I get to go down in July. My guess is there’s going to be a lot more Galápagos penguins than what we had a year and a half ago because the water has been cold. As long as there’s good upwelling of water with plenty of nutrients, the penguins will be able to make a living.
These penguins are adapted for living in a very unpredictable, but predictably unpredictable environment. Eventually, an El Niño will come. And in an El Niño, they’ll do terribly. But eventually, a La Niña will come, and they’ll do great. I’ve ironically spent my life studying climate change, because El Niños are so well developed in the Galápagos.
It’s tough to make a living as a Galápagos penguin. You’re feeding on small fish or small krill, crustaceans, zooplankton. In an El Niño year, all of those things are gone. And so, what they’re trying to eat are reef fish, which is a problem. Penguins normally just grab a fish and swallow it down. But a lot of the reef fish are quite wide. They can nail them, but how do they swallow them? They usually have to take them up to the surface and move them around a little bit, and then they can swallow them down. But if they take them up to the surface, if a sea lion or frigatebird sees them, they’re going to try to steal the food.
If you want to see the penguins on land, you’ve got to know where they live. The reason so little was known about Galápagos penguins is because they nest in crevices, lava tunnels, fissures, things like that. It’s really hot in the Galápagos. You can boil an egg on the lava in the middle of the day. So, if you’re a Galápagos penguin, you better have a really good hidey hole. You can’t make a burrow very often in the Galápagos. Now, I have had a couple of them that have nested in volcanic tuff—you can actually dig underneath the tuff and make kind of a nest site in there. But it collapses: It’s really fragile. So, it’s much better if you are in a lava tube—because that’s not going to collapse on you—or if you’re in a crevice or under lava.
In the 51 years I’ve been going to the Galápagos, a lot of things have changed. Fifty years ago, when I went swimming in the Galápagos, I always was worried about sharks, because I don’t like sharks. Every time, it seemed that when I went into the water to take a bath or whatever, I ended up seeing sharks. Now, I don’t worry about sharks anymore in the Galápagos. I just don’t see them. Why? Because we fished most of the sharks out. I mean, it’s been a terrible problem because sharks have been killed all over the globe. And of course, our seas used to have big fish. Now, we have smaller fish.
Humans have had such a demonstrable effect on wildlife over the globe. It doesn’t matter where you are. Even in the Galápagos, there are fewer penguins now than there were 50 years ago. Why? Because of El Niños, but also because of more introduced predators. I mean, the pirates came to the Galápagos. And what did they bring? They brought rats. They brought cats. They brought dogs. The footprint of humans has gotten to even the most remote places now. Whether it’s the Galápagos or Argentina, we spill petroleum over the globe. There are all these things that didn’t used to be problems for wildlife. And now they are. And we’re taking more and more fish out of the ocean. Our footprint is getting bigger.
The most optimistic thing I can say about the world is that more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. That’s a good thing. Because then, we are busy swirling our own nest. I think it’s really important for people to close those loops, to see that where you poop makes a difference in where you eat. We don’t have those sorts of things well connected. I mean, we flush our toilet, it goes away—in my case, into Puget Sound. That’s not good for the salmon. That’s not good for the cod.
In the Galápagos, there’s no place to go. You can travel up and down the islands. But if you decide to leave the islands, you’re going to be dead. Because that’s where all the food is. It’s where the upwelling is. That’s the part that interests me the most: How do you make a living in this kind of environment?
Galápagos penguins have a very bizarre natural history. Most species of penguins molt after they breed, meaning that they lose all their feathers and they grow new ones, because breeding and raising chicks takes a lot of energy. But Galápagos penguins molt before they breed. A Galápagos penguin is taking care of itself first: If they have enough energy to grow new feathers and if there’s food available, then they’ll breed. But if there’s not, they wait.
When they do breed, it’s magical to be there, even if there are very few of them. Galápagos penguins sound like a donkey braying. But all of these penguins have individual voices just like you do. So, they tell each other apart by their voices. We’ve done experiments with one of my graduate students by putting little speakers outside the nest where two chicks were living and playing the parents’ calls. The chicks came out of the nest and begged from the speakers. And if we played somebody else’s call, they didn’t come out and beg. So, the chicks recognize the adults, and the adults recognize the chicks. That’s why I think these birds are so interesting. Once people get to really know about penguins, they’re not that different from people. Wildlife enriches people’s lives and wild places enrich people’s lives.