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[Essay] On the Edge

By Christina Devin Vojta


A violent surf pounded the rocky shore, where I stood with Scott at the southernmost tip of the South Island of New Zealand. Our two-month road trip had begun on the North Island, and we had gradually worked our way south, living out of a van and seeing wildlife and landscapes that only occur in that part of the world. As wildlife biologists, we prefer habitats that are always on the far edge of somewhere.


We hoped to see yellow-eyed penguins tumble out of the surf that evening—the largest and rarest of three species of penguin that breed along New Zealand’s southern shores. It was late afternoon, and a ranger from the Department of Conservation had one eye on the surf and the other on the gaggle of people around us. We soon understood he was there to protect penguins from humans as much as to provide information. His department had cordoned off half of the limestone beach to prevent us from getting too close to traditional nesting sites.


The sun hung low over the water as we hunched our shoulders against the nippy ocean breeze. Unlike penguin species in Antarctica that nest on ice, New Zealand penguins reproduce on shorelines rimmed with cliffs and stony beaches. Above us, a long ridgeline separated the rocky beach used by yellow-eyeds from the protected bay preferred by little blue penguins, another species that breeds along the New Zealand coast.


The ranger—dressed in shorts while the rest of us were bundled in parkas—explained that both species of local penguins were currently rearing young. The parents swim out to sea at the break of day to catch fish, squid, and krill, leaving their nestlings for the entire day. Each parent returns at dusk with a full crop of partially digested seafood that must be lugged from surf to shrubs. I surveyed the stony environment and tried to imagine a penguin getting over those hurdles on stubby legs and oversized feet. Although their flippers provide a modicum of balance and stability, these upper appendages are worthless for climbing. The ranger described how the penguins clamber over rocks, waddle through brush, and even scoot across roads in order to reach their nests, where they regurgitate the crop contents into the mouths of their hungry young. They repeat this strenuous routine night after night until the young have fledged. I remembered my own nightly routine of feeding a newborn, and how difficult it seemed at the time. In contrast with the penguins’ experience, though, the nurturing of humans seemed easy.


While we waited for penguins to appear, the ranger helped us understand the perils that both yellow-eyeds and little blues face when they come ashore. Fifty years ago, penguins were abundant along the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, and because they can’t run or fly, some folks thought it was amusing to beat them with sticks, kick them, or even toss them up in the air and shoot them. Little blues, standing only a foot tall, took the worst of this abuse. As the ranger described this bit of gruesome history, I bit my lip while the folks standing near me gasped in disbelief. Persecution of penguins might well have continued to this day were it not for scientists and New Zealand’s government recognizing that their numbers were dwindling.


Currently, all species of penguins are protected from outright mistreatment, but populations are still in jeopardy. The ranger waited until the crash of a wave had subsided; then he spoke again. He told us that yellow-eyed and little blue penguins typically breed in cool, coastal forests. The little blue nests in burrows, while the yellow-eyed makes a loose nest of grasses and leaves under some bushes. He raised a hefty arm toward the parking lot and the bare ridge behind it. “All of this land used to be coastal forest.”


I imagined the lush foliage that once shaded the nests of penguins before the arrival of humans—the lime-green fronds of tree fern, the fat trunks of kauri and kahikatea, and the graceful, drooping branches of rimu. Scott and I had become acquainted with these trees on a much smaller and patchier scale during our travels. Logging began with the arrival of the first people, and now, only remnants of the original forests remain. Grasslands as well as seaports, farms, homes, and highway now dominate the coastal landscape. “For many years, penguins came ashore with the expectation of nesting in a time-honored place only to find yet another human structure where their burrow or bush used to be,” the ranger said.


Little blue penguins traditionally nest in burrows, and therefore, they are attracted to burrow-like structures made by humans, like drainpipes, woodpiles, building foundations, and even nest boxes specifically designed for them. In contrast, the yellow-eyed penguin, twice the size of the little blue, prefers to tuck its nest under a bush. This difference in breeding taste might be one reason why little blues still number in the hundreds of thousands, whereas yellow-eyeds constitute less than two thousand breeding pairs. They are the rarest penguin on Earth.


By the time the ranger had drilled all of this into us, the sun had approached the horizon, and I was shivering. A penguin had yet to appear, so he continued his stories. If nesting habitat and predation were their only problems, penguins might eventually be able to survive in a human-dominated world. But there are other challenges at sea. Increases in ocean temperatures have reduced the abundance of fish that penguins normally feed to their offspring, forcing penguins to gather less nutritious forms of sea life. “Our oceans currently don’t supply enough energy-rich food to raise penguins, and we’re finding malnourished chicks,” the ranger told us. “Rescue organizations have begun to take chicks with low weights to penguin centers for supplemental feeding.”


By then, Scott and I were exchanging worried glances. I turned toward the ranger. “How many yellow-eyed penguins are we likely to see tonight?”


“If we’re lucky, we might see one or two of them. Six pairs successfully bred on this shoreline last year, but there are only two pairs this year. At another site nearby, the nesting colony has plunged from sixty pairs to only four. This species is truly in peril. New Zealand is the only place where they live, so the four thousand that we have in our country are the last of their kind in the world.” My chest tightened, and I turned away to watch a wave shatter against the unforgiving rocks. After hearing about the abundance of little blue penguins, the paucity of yellow-eyeds shocked me. The decline of this species was so precipitous that it might be unstoppable, and that decline was almost entirely due to humans.


“Please stay behind the yellow tape,” the ranger warned. “Penguins feel extremely vulnerable when they come to shore, and the slightest hint of danger will send them back into the water.” With his words, I became hyperaware that I was part of the crowd of onlookers, each of us possessed with a generous dose of curiosity. How much of the penguins’ decline was due to our very presence? Most of us probably wished we could get closer—much closer. At the same time, I hoped that the single strand of rope was enough to grant the penguins the stress-free path to their nests that they needed. I wondered about other penguin breeding sites along the coast where rangers were not on guard and protective line was not in place.


“Is that a penguin?” The woman who asked was looking toward the coastal scrub, not at the ocean. I aimed my binoculars in that direction and saw, a hundred yards away, a two-foot-tall creature emerging from the brush. The bird had the iconic oval shape of a penguin with dark-gray sides and a plump, white breast. With flippers akimbo and pieces of down still visible between newly formed contour feathers, the fledgling looked not quite ready for a dip in the sea.


The ranger lowered his binoculars with a smile. “That’s the first yellow-eyed fledgling I’ve seen this year. You folks are lucky tonight.”


As we watched, the young bird tipped back its head, opened its beak, and began to call for its parents. The cry was thin and plaintive, and it spoke of hunger and long hours of waiting and perhaps even a bit of fear at having waddled away from the safety of the nest. The gull-like mewing was barely audible over the thundering surf, but I heard it loud and clear, as though the fledgling was talking directly to me.


The chick continued to cry out while waves relentlessly buffeted the rocks. No adult penguin appeared, and eventually, the young bird retreated into the bushes. We humans stayed hopeful and remained where we were, but I could still hear the voice of the penguin chick in my head. Heard from that distance, the keening moved me in a manner that would not have been possible from my home seven thousand miles away. I felt a direct connection between myself and that little chick.


Waves slammed against the rocks while red-billed gulls and pied oystercatchers careened in the spray. Above us, the grassy hill remained silent about the vanquished forest that had grown there for millennia. The setting was completely foreign to me, but the story of habitat loss was one I knew from my training as a biologist and from personal experience. Habitat loss sounds blameless and passive, like the way we say, “loss of memory,” as if, against our will, it just happens. Yet, apart from glacial advances, meteors, and a few natural disasters, humans are directly responsible for most loss of habitat across the globe. Our species has a long history of taking whatever land we want and repurposing it for our own use.


I wasn’t responsible for the denuded hillside behind the penguin, but I understood how my own actions, along with the actions of others, have contributed to loss of habitat in other places. It is easy, I thought, to be outraged about the direct clubbing of penguins and harder to accept the role that all humans play in habitat loss. People and their domestic animals now account for two-thirds of the biomass of all mammals on Earth, and humans have modified three-fourths of the ice-free land mass of the planet.


I also contemplated what the ranger had said about the effects of warmer oceans on penguins. The rise in ocean temperature, I knew, wasn’t a random event. It was directly linked to human-induced climate change. The fact that Scott and I were currently in penguin territory was the result of a flight that we later calculated as having produced three thousand pounds of carbon emissions. Although our main objective in New Zealand was to see and appreciate the country’s unique plants and animals, we were traipsing around in a van that emitted more carbon with every passing kilometer. My contribution to ocean warming was real and ongoing and, apparently, was contributing to the demise of penguins. I thought of the chick crying out for a parent who had still not arrived, and wondered if that parent was still looking for food to bring home, food that was much diminished by ocean temperatures.


“Penguin!” Scott’s voice rang out, jarring me out of my reverie. I turned toward the roiling waters to see a small creature literally surfing the latest wave. The water surged toward shore, carrying the penguin with it, and crashed without mercy against the rocks. The penguin vanished in the spume, then appeared again in shallow water, struggling to move toward shore as the force of the outgoing tide sucked it away from its destination. Another wave rushed forward, and the chubby bird waggled its flippers and gained more ground. The third wave tossed it onto a patch of sand where, at last, it was able to scramble to its feet. After a quick wiggle of its short tail, it hopped onto a small rock that offered a respite from any additional waves. It stood nearly as tall as a goose, although the rocky shoreline made it seem much smaller.


With the arrival of the adult penguin, the fledgling reappeared on the upper bank, wailing and begging once more. Rather than move toward its young, the parent paused for several minutes to rest and preen. It still had to undertake a long uphill waddle with a heavy bag of food in its chest, and for that, it needed to gather its strength. While it rested, I admired the distinctive yellow band that extended from eye to eye across the back of its head, like the strap on a pair of swimming goggles. The feathers on its forehead and crown were a blend of black and yellow that reminded me of a stylish frosted hairdo. A smart white line accented the outer edge of each flipper, and its feet were flamingo pink.


The fledgling, seemingly impatient, swayed back and forth until it finally got up the nerve to hop one step closer to mom. After several minutes of preening, stretching, and shaking off water, the adult moved toward its chick, picking its way through rounded boulders. I marveled at its ability to leap onto rocks that were as high as its chest. Meanwhile, the chick continued to experiment with some rock hopping of its own. The adult covered twenty feet to the fledgling’s one, and finally, they were united. At last, the young bird opened its beak and received a load of crop-processed seafood. We watched the parent feed its offspring again and again while the chick fluttered its flippers. My eyes grew moist with appreciation for the bird’s singular beauty, and from relief that the chick’s parent had finally appeared. When the sun dropped out of sight and a layer of clouds turned the palest shade of pink, the penguins receded into the brush. Then, twenty satisfied humans headed back to their cars.


Scott and I had hoped to also see little blue penguins that evening, but since they typically come to shore in total darkness, we assumed our efforts to find one would be futile. Still, it was worth a try if we wanted to wait an hour. To pass the time, we drove to the end of the bare finger of land that separated the rocky coast to our west from the more protected bay on the east. There, we watched a full moon rise over the southern Pacific, casting strands of gold across the waves. Nothing stood between us and Antarctica but miles and miles of water. We broke out some cookies and a thermos of herbal tea, and while we snacked, I silently contemplated the hard-earned, cold fish dinner of the yellow-eyed penguins.


As we drove back to our campsite, something glowed in our van’s headlights—an upright figure the size of a bowling pin stood motionless just inches from the asphalt. “Stop! That looks like a penguin!”


“What? Where?” Scott stopped, but he had already driven past the stationary creature.


“It’s right behind us. Quick—back up!” Scott put the van into reverse and inched backward along the road until the penguin was square in the beam of the headlights. “There it is,” I said, “See it?”


“Oh, wow. It’s a little blue.”


My heart raced at this discovery. I grabbed my camera, but the penguin was only a fuzzy blur through the windshield. I had the opportunity of a lifetime right in front of me, but I would need to get out of the van. No rope prevented me from stepping closer, no ranger stood ready to chastise me. I told myself that little blue penguins aren’t as rare as yellow-eyeds; there are still plenty of them, and they’ve become accustomed to humans. All I had to do was open the van door, take a few steps, and I would have the perfect shot.


Shot? The word snapped me to my senses. In the back of my mind, I heard the voice of the yellow-eyed fledgling still pleading with me. I wanted to leap from the van, but that voice held me in place. As I peered through the windshield, the blurred penguin seemed so vulnerable, and my motivation for capturing its image so selfish. My grip tightened around the handle of the door. I was aware that sometimes, wildlife photography awakens a primal, predatory instinct within me. I find myself stalking my photographic quarry, eager to capture the essence of the animal before it flees. I justify my intrusions in the name of art, science, or education. This time, though, the voice of the yellow-eyed penguin was still ringing in my head, reminding me that I was one of many humans responsible for the decline of species both close to home and far away, both directly and indirectly.


The little blue shifted its posture away from the road, toward the water. I knew it was turning away from its hidden nest, away from a chick that needed the food inside of its crop. If we didn’t move quickly, another day would pass before its young would be fed again. “Scott—we shouldn’t be doing this. Let’s go.”


“What? I thought you wanted a photo.”


“Not anymore. Hurry. Dim the lights. Let’s move.” Scott pressed the gas pedal, and the van surged forward, leaving the penguin behind and the perfect shot untaken. Then, he dropped his speed in case other penguins might be nearby. For a while, we drove in silence.


“What happened back there?” he finally asked.


“I don’t know…sometimes it doesn’t feel right to take something, just because I can.” I was referring to photos but thinking about all types of unnecessary consumption. How necessities slide into wants that slide into luxuries, and how each decision to acquire more for ourselves means less for other species. I was thinking about taking lives and taking habitat and taking vacations that release carbon at deadly costs. The future of our planet is influenced by small choices made by individuals at each given moment in time, and the present moment was one of those times when I could choose to act differently.


I will never know what transpired after we left. Perhaps the little blue simply crossed the road to its nest burrow and fed its waiting offspring as it did every night. Perhaps the fact that we stopped—even briefly—caused such stress that it spewed up its precious booty right there on the side of the road. Worse yet, perhaps our lights left it so blinded that the next car struck it dead. All I knew was that I was still in the van, and the weight of my camera was a stone in my lap.


I closed my eyes against the untaken photo and mentally pictured the many penguins who needed that particular spot on Earth to sustain them. Somewhere nearby, a little blue penguin was hoping Dad would make it home with dinner. The yellow-eyed fledgling I had met earlier was undoubtedly back in its nest with a belly full of fish and at least one parent to keep it warm. I wondered when that fledgling would venture down to the beach for the first time and feel the incoming tide swirl around its feet. I wondered how far it would go on its first swim, and whether its parents would teach it how to fish. But mostly, as I recalled its beseeching cry, I wondered what kind of world it would encounter when it was ready to start a family of its own.


Christina Devin Vojta is a writer and wildlife ecologist who currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her creative nonfiction essays have appeared in Flyway, Hawk and Handsaw, Belle Ombre, and Newfound, and other works have been semifinalists in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, and Tahoma Literary Review. Her contributions to science have been published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Journal of Applied Ecology, and Landscape Ecology.

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