From Petaluma to Antarctica
"Penguins don't speak English," says Dennis Jongsomjit, a 43-year-old bird scientist who, earlier this year, returned from his fourth trip to one of the last pristine places on earth — the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area in Antarctica. He’s part of the Point Blue Conservation Science research team, based in Petaluma, where he’s been working since 2001. Point Blue's mission is to find “nature and science-based solutions to climate change, habitat loss, and environmental threat to wildlife."
"Our job," Jongsomjit says of his team's work in Antarctica, "is to discover what Adélie penguins need to survive and be happy, and then write that down in English so humans can understand."
As the son of first-generation immigrants, Jongsomjit is familiar with navigating between languages. He grew up in Koreatown, a diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles.
"My mom from Guatemala was a hotel housekeeper, and my dad from Thailand was a bell-boy,“ he says. ”My family struggled financially." Jongsomjit doesn't remember spending much time outdoors, but he coped with the upheaval of his parents' divorce by watching wildlife television programs. "It was my escape to nature," he recalls.
Jongsomjit financed his UC Davis education by cobbling together scholarships and student loans, and working part-time jobs. He pursued a degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, intending to work with wolves, his favorite animal on nature shows. However, after he met a duck enthusiast in college, he fell in love with birds.
"Bird people are really into the work they do," Jongsomjit told me. Today, he’s getting a master's degree in Geographic Information Systems at San Francisco State University while continuing to work at Point Blue.
"To get to Antarctica," Jongsomjit explains from his home in Petaluma, "we take a 13-hour flight from San Francisco to New Zealand." Then, depending on the thickness of the ice at McMurdo Station, "We take the 5-to 8-hour flight on a C-130 or a C-17 cargo plane provided by the U.S. or the New Zealand military."
At McMurdo Station, the four-to-five-person team waits, sometimes for days, until the pilot determines that the weather is safe enough for the 40-minute helicopter ride to Cape Crozier, their destination, where they remain for the rest of the season.
Every day, the team hikes 2-kilometers on icy terrain to the penguin colony, the summer home of about 300,000 breeding pairs. It’s penguins as far as you can see. Each mating pair makes a nest of pebbles, where they breed and raise their offspring.
"They are extremely loyal to their nest site,“ Jongsomjit says. ”The pair returns to the same one-square-meter spot year after year. Even after traveling thousands of kilometers during the migration for the rest of the year."
The Point Blue team spends three busy months in Antarctica where the summer sun stays above the horizon 24-hours a day but the temperature hovers around freezing point. They visit nests of tagged penguins every four days to record how many eggs hatched and the progress of the chicks. They tag new penguins with numbered bands, or attach geolocators to their backs. These are tiny devices that record the penguin’s location, diving depth, and the ocean temperature.
"Holding an Adélie Penguin is like holding a muscular football with flapping wings and powerful feet with sharp claws,” Jongsomjit says.
Penguins spend most of their lives in the ocean diving and swimming, eating tiny shrimp-like krill and Antarctic silverfish. They swim thousands of kilometers north in the wintertime chasing the right ocean conditions for foraging. And they dive many times an hour, sometimes more than 100 meters deep. If you think penguins are cute wobbly creatures, you’re not exactly wrong.
“You have to respect them." Jongsomjit says. "These birds are hardy."
Though Adélie penguins are vulnerable to climate change, the colony at Cape Crozier is growing. However, this is not necessarily the case in other parts of Antarctica and scientists are learning why.
“For example, their main competitor, toothfish -- known as Chilean Sea Bass -- is declining due to overfishing,” Jongsomjit suggests. In other words, the Cape Crozier penguins may be enjoying an all-you-can eat buffet in the ocean, contributing to their robust population growth. "Still," he cautions, "the penguins' future is uncertain."
Point Blue will continue its research, but due to Covid-19 a smaller team will be heading to Antarctica this year. This time, Jongsomjit may have to sit it out.
“I’ll miss all the 600,000 penguins, especially the individuals I got to know,” he says wistfully, “but I am glad the important work will go on.”
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