Professor Dee Boersma is, by her own admission, “madly in love” with penguins. She has spent half a century travelling to the ends of the Earth to study, tag and monitor the flightless bird in the hope of preserving it.
The academic recently returned from Punta Tombo in Argentina on her annual visit for a project she began in 1982 studying the Magellanic penguin. And this year she will visit the Galápagos islands to continue a programme encouraging the breeding of the Galápagos penguin which began when she was still a graduate student.
Professor Boersma says her long-term research is also “essential” for a wider purpose – understanding the impact of climate change.
In Punta Tombo, the Magellanic penguin population is 50 per cent less than in 1987 because of a scarcity of food. “You have to follow individual penguins over a long period of time,” she says. “People are not patient and our funding is not secure year to year, so it takes a crazy person like me to stick at it. Without this long-term tagging, we’d have no idea that penguins live for more than 30 years.”
When Professor Boersma, a biologist at the University of Washington state in Seattle, started her Argentinian project she expected it to last three years. Her plan was to take a census of the 200,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins, a species which was – and continues to be – classified as near threatened.
She and her small team of graduate students have put bands on many penguins during their annual three-week long visits. The result is an extraordinary treasure trove of data which shows that the population has shrunk to just 110,000 mating pairs.
Climate change has forced the penguins to seek food in different parts of the continent: one chick Professor Boersma’s team banded 20m from its nest wasn’t seen for 17 years – until it was found breeding in San Lorenzo, more than 150 miles to the north.
Professor Boersma said: “We think about global warming and [think] ‘If anything, shouldn’t the penguins be going south?’ But ours go north.
“They’re following the anchovy or the hake. Food drives most of this planet – and penguins are no different.”
Another threat to the population is that it is aging. Many of the penguins are 20 or 30 years old, which makes them senior citizens in penguin years.
The project in the Galápagos has been just as remarkable. Professor Boersma was a graduate student studying on the islands when she noticed the Galápagos penguin, an endangered species which needs shade to nest, was being forced to lay eggs on the bare lava rock.
It took another 28 years before she was able to follow through on an idea she had, with the help of Galápagos biologist Godfrey Merlin. Using crowbars and hammers, they chiselled out 124 nests from the rocks which the penguins began to use.
Now, 12 years later, around 80 of the nests are still in operation and while Professor Boersma does not know the number of Galápagos penguins, there has been a clear increase from the 5,000 that marked a low point when a particularly strong El Niño weather event halved their population in 1982.
Despite its beautiful location, the work on the Galápagos is far from glamorous and involves weeks on Mr Merlin’s boat, Ratty, which fits four – with one person sleeping on deck. They work solidly from sunrise until 6pm when the light goes, sometimes not even stopping for lunch.
The work has at times been dramatic in unexpected ways, such as when a cliff collapsed beneath Professor Boersma while she was holding two penguins. Everyone survived unscathed.
Then there was the time she fell on the lava on Santa Cruz island and cut herself on the knee. Professor Boersma needed a penicillin shot but doctors warned that she risked hepatitis because they reused the needles. Opting for pills instead, her knee had swelled to the size of a grapefruit by the time she got back to America – where she was diagnosed with a staphylococcus infection. “I was lucky I didn’t die,” she said.
Professor Boersma is happy to use her status as a grand dame of penguins to tell people about dangers to the planet. “Are we hoovering up whole oceans? Yes we are. Can wildlife outcompete human fisheries given we have eight billion people in the world? No.
“There are consequences for other species with our consumption patterns”. While she would happily continue her work indefinitely, she begrudgingly admits that, at 76, she “can’t do this for ever”. “But the thing about my work is I like teaching and I love penguins – and I find my research fascinating.”
And the decades she has spent studying the birds brings insights that might otherwise be missed. “They have individual personalities, some are crotchety, they have bad days,” she said.
“They have an incredible divorce rate and 71 per cent of their first marriages end in divorce. The females are much more likely to remarry.”
Even now, watching penguin chicks that are just two months old walking to the sea for their first swim still gives her a thrill. “Some of them look around and hesitate,” she said. “Then they throw themselves in and they’re off to Uruguay, Northern Argentina or Brazil.“I wouldn’t do that. I don’t have that leap of faith. That’s what has captured me, penguins are so much like people.”