In 1981 a group of Japanese businessmen from the Hinode Penguin Company approached the provincial government of Chubut, in Argentina. About 70 miles south of the capital, Rawson, on a small peninsula called Punta Tombo, was a colony of more than one million Magellanic penguins. A million penguins are way too many, the businessmen argued. They proposed harvesting nearly 50,000 per year, using the meat for animal meal and the skins for penguin-leather golf gloves and handbags. It would be, they said, a “rational culling.”
When news of the proposal leaked, the public was outraged. Hundreds of Argentines wrote angry letters; some even marched on the governor’s house in protest. Although the proposal was scrapped, it was enough to alarm William Conway, director of the New York Zoological Society (which became the Wildlife Conservation Society), who worked in the region. And so, in 1982, he asked Dee Boersma, a young biologist from the University of Washington, to start a study of the colony.
Boersma arrived to find what was, for all intents and purposes, a blank slate. No one even knew how many penguins there were. (One million was just a nice round number.) Here was a young researcher’s dream, a chance to work with an all-but-unstudied population of animals. She and her crew put flipper bands on several thousand penguins so they could tell them apart. They marked hundreds of nests so they could find them the next year. “I thought I would come back for only a few years,” she says. “I guess you could say I failed pretty miserably at that.” And she’s right: Three decades later you could say it that way. But there are other ways, too.
Boersma first met penguins in 1970 as a Ph.D. student of Paul Colinvaux’s. An esteemed biologist, Colinvaux was at the time best known as a paleoecologist, primarily of the Arctic and the Amazon. But he also worked in the Galápagos, which Boersma had always wanted to see. “I was going to get there, one way or another,” she says, and so when Colinvaux asked her what she wanted to study, she more or less plucked the Galápagos penguin out of the air.
“Wonderful,” Colinvaux replied (“He sounded just like Winston Churchill,” Boersma remembers), and in due time she was on a plane to Baltra Island in the Galápagos, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Once there, she hitched a boat ride with some geologists, and two days later they deposited her on Fernandina Island. She was 22 years old. She had a tent, a tape measure, a notebook, some pencils, and enough food and water to last two weeks. She had never even camped before. “Really, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says.
Her first day, she did not see a single penguin. But the Galápagos penguin is a full-throated character, and at night she could hear a single male off in the distance, braying: ha-ha-ha-haaaaaaaaaw! It was, she thought, a lonely sound.
In the face of such ambiguous omens, she threw herself into her work. No one knew how many penguins there were; focusing on “noses,” she counted more than 2,000. Only two of their nests had ever been found; she discovered more, searching the tubes, crevices, and caves in the black lava. With natural history as a base, she drew broader connections between oceanography, climate, and biology—connections that would inform the rest of her career. When she looked at penguins, she saw environmental indicators. In their lives and deaths were the great movements of global phenomena.
As much as Boersma came to love the Galápagos penguin, though, studying them was spiritually taxing. “It’s the rarest penguin in the world,” she says. “It could get depressing.” Also, the archipelago was climatically monotonous, either baking hot or drenched with rain. She wanted abundance, wanted seasons, and so she headed to Alaska to study storm petrels. But after a few years she missed flightless birds, so when the opportunity presented itself to do research on the penguin hordes in changeable Patagonia, she took it.
The living conditions were rustic at best, but she didn’t care. “Dee has proved wonderfully tough, an altogether unusual person,” Conway says. “She is prepared to put up with a great deal of personal discomfort to achieve whatever she’s trying to do.”
At Punta Tombo, she looked out at the desert landscape and tried to see it through the penguins’ eyes. What mattered? Some penguins nested in bushes, others in burrows. Which was better? Was it important to be close to their neighbors? Far from them?
Even as hundreds of thousands of penguins cavorted around her, Boersma’s work was driven, in part, by the fear of loss. Although the Hinode Company’s “rational culling” idea had been rejected, there had been other such plans before. (“Some Romanians wanted to make penguin shoes, but then World War II happened,” says Boersma.) She assumed new entrepreneurs would come bearing schemes. There were also other, more immediate concerns.
In 1989 Pablo Garcia Borboroglu was a travel agent in Puerto Madryn, a small coastal city three hours north of Punta Tombo. Often, as he walked the beaches, he would find penguins coated in oil. When he could, he would bring them back to a farm to rehabilitate them, but he wasn’t sure how best to clean them. He had heard of a researcher working at Punta Tombo, so he took an oiled penguin down to get her advice.
Like many people who ask Boersma a question, Borboroglu got more than he bargained for. “Dee wanted to show me things about penguins,” he says. There happened to be a dead penguin nearby, so she necropsied the carcass then and there, right in front of him. “I was coming from studying law, nothing to do with biology,” Borboroglu says. “It was very shocking.” It also fascinated him.
At Boersma’s prodding (“She said, ‘I’m going to make a good biologist out of you!’ ”), he went back to school, earned a Ph.D., and returned to help solve the oiled-penguin problem. At the time, large oil spills, like the one caused by the Exxon Valdez, were the focus of conservationists. Boersma’s work with storm petrels had shown her that smaller, more chronic oil sources could actually be the greater concern. For several years she and her Argentine students surveyed beaches along the coast, counting thousands of dead and oiled penguins. The penguins’ preferred routes, they determined, happened to overlap with areas of heavy oil tanker traffic. Ships were discharging their oily ballast water along the coast before docking, and penguins were swimming right through it.
Boersma and her students published their findings in 1994. Three years later the tanker lanes were moved about 25 miles farther offshore. (Ironically, a massive oil spill also helped sway public sentiment.) The number of oiled penguins along the Chubut coastline has since dropped from an estimated 42,000 annually to fewer than 100. “When I met Dee, she was trying to convince me that washing penguins wasn’t the solution,” says Borboroglu, now a biologist with the Argentina Natural Research Council and president of the Global Penguin Society. “It was more important to assess the magnitude of the problem, and use science to push the policy.”
This is probably a good place to say that, like Borboroglu, I was once one of Boersma’s students, and spent a season at Punta Tombo several years ago. As such, I can vouch that, in her adopted landscape, Boersma is a force. Wielding a gancho, a shepherd’s crook made of rebar (to catch penguins by the leg), and sporting plastic kneepads (for the ground is brutally hard), she drives herself across the rough terrain at a punishing pace. She often wears a pedometer, and was once disappointed to find she had walked only 12 miles in a day.
Boersma expects everyone to match her energy and zeal; people, for her, are sometimes little more than penguin fodder. I have watched her press-gang Borboroglu into staying for a daylong survey when he had dropped by for just a quick hello. (“My wife and children,” he pleaded at one point, as she claimed his afternoon, hour by hour.)
Almost any action in the service of penguins can be justified. Once, in 2006, an Argentine official decided of his own accord to extend a trail through the colony, contravening a management plan Boersma had spent years hammering out. Boersma happened to be flying out the next day, and there was no time to protest the decision through the proper channels. Late in the afternoon she found the building materials and hid them under bushes. When the official found out, he was outraged and accused her of destroying government property. She and her crew were prohibited from working at Punta Tombo for weeks afterward, but in the end the official was fired and Boersma was allowed back. “It was a crime of passion,” she says, unapologetic to this day. “At least that’s what they called it in the paper.”
The colony is Boersma’s habitat, if not her home. As she traverses it under the relentless sun, her eyes flick about, and she provides a running commentary: “That chick sure has big feet” or “Whoa, that is one thick bill on that guy!” Eventually, I came to realize that at the root of almost every utterance were piles of data. Moreover, each observation had the potential to spur further investigation. “Do you think first and second eggs are the same size?,” for instance, turned into a study that refined the calculation of egg volumes.
Such an approach, which can seem helter-skelter but is really more attentively chaotic, is one of the reasons Boersma is sometimes referred to as “Hurricane Dee.” (I’m not sure she knows about this.) But it also shows, she says, the importance of long-term projects: When you know a place so well, and have more data than you know what to do with, the obvious things recede from view, and subtler phenomena draw the eye.
This was the case with a recent study of the effects of large storms on penguins. Boersma had noticed that large storms were sweeping through the colony on a more regular basis, killing scores of young chicks. Scientists are familiar enough with the devastation that a single ill-timed storm can wreak on seabird breeding success, but there are fewer data on the long-term effects of increasing storm frequency, as is predicted under most climate change scenarios. She wondered: How real was the threat?
“Dee does that a lot,” says Ginger Rebstock, a researcher who, like Borboroglu, Boersma plucked from another life, albeit one studying copepods. “Ideas will be floating around, and then she’ll come in and say, ‘We have to work on this right now.’ ”
Rebstock combed through the weather archives at Trelew, the city closest to Punta Tombo. She found that big storms were becoming more common, more severe, and arriving earlier in the season. She and Boersma then folded that into a larger story about chick death. Simply put, it doesn’t pay to be a chick at a seabird colony. At Punta Tombo, on average, 65 percent of chicks die before they can even leave the colony, and death takes them in diverse and creative ways. Over the years, though, Boersma has found one major cause of death: starvation. But now, here was another, rising from the sea of data: The number of storms that hit the colony when chicks were youngest and thus most vulnerable was increasing, and in two seasons, more chicks were killed by storms than by anything else.
The study would be one of the first to show the direct effects that climate change can have on seabirds. “It’s like Katrina,” Boersma says. “It doesn’t happen every year, but when it does, it’s big.”
This season marks Boersma’s 30th at Punta Tombo. She no longer spends six months in the field, but she makes it down as often as she can. Likewise, her focus has shifted somewhat to the valedictory, most especially the establishment of a marine protected area around the colony. She has been trying to get one forever, it seems, and has often butted heads with provincial governors or other officials who were less concerned with the penguins’ welfare than she felt they ought to be. The current governor is more sympathetic, though, and has said as much. “Politically, this is the closest we’ve ever been,” she says.
With that victory in sight, I recently asked her if she had ever thought of handing the reins over to someone else, or at least scaling her own involvement to a more leisurely remove, as befits a conservationist in winter. “I don’t think I’ll ever stop,” she said tersely, and shot me a sharp look. She seemed put out that I would suggest she was mortal like everything else, and so I let the matter drop. Far be it from me to try to convince her otherwise.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "Empress Penguin."