Around the Pier: Emperors of the Phantom Coast


After spending his career at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego studying emperor penguins and other marine animals, research physiologist Jerry Kooyman knows all too well that a big part of the story of the rotund flightless birds is still untold.

Now Kooyman is working to fill in the gap. Calling it the Holy Grail of emperor penguin studies, Kooyman and three colleagues spent two months studying  their mysterious activities after molting. Together with the molt period, the journey back to the colony is  a taxing period in their annual life cycle in which their bodies shed old feathers and prepare for new ones and then make a trip of more than 1,000 kilometers. Molting significantly reduces their body mass and leads to muscle loss, which restricts their hunting ability during this time. Precious little is known about these post-molt travels and the penguins’ foraging capabilities. According to Kooyman, there is virtually no scientific data available on the subject— mostly because it has remained largely hidden from human observation.

In a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and supported by the UC San Diego Academic Senate, Kooyman and his colleagues have embarked on a two-month expedition aboard the NSF icebreaking vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer. Most of the journey has focused on Antarctic science indirectly related to Kooyman’s research, but a week was dedicated to penguins in a largely inaccessible area of the eastern Ross Sea that has earned the nickname, the “Phantom Coast.”

At age 78, Kooyman believed his career was beyond such long-term field expeditions, but jumped “back in the game” when the Phantom Coast opportunity emerged and with it a rare opportunity to conduct science during penguin molting and the subsequent long journey before breeding. Read the expedition blog here.

“Molting is a very energetic process and they have to have enough body mass to get through it and still be in a condition to forage right afterwards,” said Kooyman. “If they don’t have an abundant food resource they could conceivably starve during  the molt or afterward and there is no other option to molting and feeding well afterwards if they are to breed in the coming winter season.”

After being deployed on the Antarctic ice from the ship, Kooyman and his team is seeking to capture 21 emperor penguins and attach satellite transmitters to their backs. If the devices stay attached, even during the time of extreme temperature changes when the whole habitat freezes over, Kooyman believes they will deliver crucial information during those most trying months in their annual cycle.

Because the iconic birds are considered sentinels of the extreme south, Kooyman says the transmitter data will go a long way in piecing together a missing period of their lives and help scientists understand how they are grappling with the most extreme of environmental threats such as large variation in sea ice, atmospheric conditions and food resources. In the face of global climate change, with which they have dealt for eons, they may be dealing with habitat resource modifications that are extreme even for the hardy species.

“They are biological indicators of what’s happening in the region,” said Kooyman. “What goes on in the Antarctic Ocean ultimately goes on to impact the world’s oceans.”


– Mario C. Aguilera

Related Image Gallery: Emperors of the Phantom Coast

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.