The long march of the penguins

Exhausted birds are washing up on Brazil's tropical beaches, thrown off course by changing currents. Claire Soares reports

A A A

In between the bronzed bodies in skimpy thongs soaking up the rays on Copacabana beach, a tiny black and white bundle of feathers struggles to emerge from the surf. Exhausted and emaciated, its bones poking through the blubber, the young penguin finally collapses on the sand. It has strayed thousands of miles from home, one of more than 1,000 penguins to have washed up on the Brazilian coast this year.

They have come ashore not just in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer in Rio but further north than ever before, with some making landfall just 400 miles from the Equator. Brazilian coastguards have abandoned their Baywatch-style posing and found themselves acting as penguin first-aiders, protecting them from an over-enthusiastic public whose first instinct is often to stick the birds in an ice bucket.

The Magellanic penguins hail from southern Argentina, with the biggest colony just off the Valdes Peninsula. During winter, the birds usually head north in search of more fish-rich waters. Rarely, however, do they stray as far north as Rio, and to reach the waters around Natal is pretty much unheard of. "It's an extremely unusual event," said Valeria Ruoppolo, a vet with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who has being helping rescue the stranded birds. "We have never seen anything on this scale before. It's normal for them to migrate north but this year they just kept going and going."

No one is really sure what has caused the Brazilian exodus – at the moment, the focus is on saving the penguins rather than explaining how they have ended up in this predicament – but the prevailing theory is that changes in water temperatures have caused confusion on the migratory routes. Fish like cold water and so South American penguins in search of food usually ride the cold Malvinas Current north, gobbling as they go. When they hit the warmer Brazil Current, they know it's time to stop and head back. Only this year, the Malvinas Current has been warmer than usual, meaning the penguins couldn't appreciate the difference.

"The penguins didn't realise when they hit the meeting point so they forged on, and, of course in warmer waters there's not as much fish, and then suddenly the birds were like 'Uh-oh! We don't have any more food'," explained Ms Ruoppolo. "If they don't have enough to eat, they lose blubber, then they start to feel cold in the water and that's when they come ashore to get warm."

Backing up this theory is the fact that most of the penguins that have got lost are juveniles, embarking on their first migration without a wealth of life experience to fall back on when faced with uncharted waters. However more analysis is needed before making a definitive conclusion. "This is extreme, but we don't have statistics on the number of penguins and the ocean temperatures," Jose Marengo, a Brazilian climatologist and a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the Washington Post. "Some of the most important uncertainties we have are on the oceanic currents."

Other experts have suggested that melting ice in Antarctica has strengthened the Malvinas Current, which has then spirited away the younger, weaker and more vulnerable penguins. Another theory is that oil spills and over-fishing have combined to deplete the penguins' fish stocks, forcing them to movefurther afield to feed.

Of the 1,000-plus penguins that have been recovered on land, about a fifth have died of starvation, exhaustion and other illnesses, and experts reckon they are just a fraction of the number of penguins that have perished out at sea.

Brazilian zoos have been inundated with the surviving birds, some of whom who have lost three-quarters of their body weight; are wracked with parasites and diarrhoea; sporting broken flippers, and severely malnourished. By 21 September, Niteroi zoo had received 556 penguins, compared with just seven in the whole of 2007. "We find lots of penguins here with catfish bones in them, which they normally don't eat," explained Thiago Muniz, one of the zoo's vets. "That suggests they're not finding their normal fish."

Rescued penguins have been nursed back to health up and down the coast, first with rehydration fluids, before graduating to fishy milkshakes and then finally whole sardines. Now moves are afoot to return them back to the wild.

The first batch of 400 survivors flew yesterday from Salvador to Rio Grande – with the help of the Brazilian air force – and were then loaded onto trucks and taken to a rehabilitation centre on the coast for final check-ups. Today, the young penguins will be released back into the Atlantic waters along with four adults, who should act as guides for the long swim home to Argentina.

"We are giving these guys a second chance," said Ms Ruoppolo. "Hopefully they'll learn their lesson and not make the same mistakes next time around."

Some of their fellow wanderers have decided to stay put in Brazil, however. Fernandinha, Claudinha, Queridinho, Pity, Predileto, Tutuca, Colhidora and Smarty have been taken under the wing of a retired photographer, Cecilia Breves. "I was very happy when I had one or two, because they are so cute. They'd follow me around everywhere," the 57-year-old told the Washington Post. "It's much harder when there are eight of them."

But the birds seem happy, roaming about her Rio penthouse, chilling out among the palm trees on the veranda or taking a dip in the roof-top hot tub. The red plastic igloo their adoptive mother has bought for them remains untouched.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PSV/PCV & HGV Mechanics

£29000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: PSV/PCV Mechanics & HGV mechani...

Recruitment Genius: Reprographics Operator

£12500 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest independent Reprogr...

Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher

£120 - £145 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: French & German Teacher X2 Materni...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee