- SkuasCape Bird, Antarctica
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Upon sighting the Antarctic mainland in 1840, French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville named a slice of it Terre Adélie, after his wife, Adèle. He’d named some plants and seaweed and an island off New Zealand after himself but never anything as grand and forbidding as that inaccessible coastline of ice and rock. (Reminded me of you, babe.) Two scientists on the expedition collected specimens of a new penguin (that is, killed them, stuffed them) and called the species Adélie. (Pygoscelis adeliae.) // Adélie penguins live in colonies around the Antarctic coastline and islands, some with hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs. They are charming and smelly and noisy and curious. They hop up impossibly steep slopes of ice and rock. They build nests out of pebbles, and they growl if you come too close. Adélie neighbors shamelessly steal one another’s pebbles. Before swimming, they cluster at the ice edge and try to jostle one another into the water to check for lurking leopard seals. When predatory skuas attack their eggs and young, they push each other toward the birds as shields. Safety in numbers, as a survival strategy, boils down to Take him! Not me! The penguin credo. // In February, the colonies were mostly inhabited by maturing chicks, not yet waterproof, downy and hungry. The adults were at sea, catching food to bring back and regurgitate. As soon as an adult landed, a horde of begging chicks would surround it, beaks open. Skuas circled overhead, eyeing the weakest. The remains of their victims were everywhere, some almost pristine, others picked down to just spine and feet. Some of us couldn’t resist shooing away the skuas, saving a fluffy baby for a minute, an hour. But skuas need to eat. // On the Zodiac back to the ship, splashed seawater froze instantly, crusting us white like bodies left out in the cold. [End Page 19]
Maggie Shipstead is the author of two novels: Astonish Me (Knopf, 2014) and Seating Arrangements (Knopf, 2012), which was a New York Times bestseller, a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. She has been a National Magazine Award finalist in fiction and a contributor to The Best American Short Stories.