From penning articles to penguin wrangling

Eleanor Lee holds a penguin chicks named Ceres Bucket. Lee and her husband decided to name them after Harry Potter characters. Photos provided by Eleanor Lee.

Eleanor Lee holds a penguin chick named Ceres Bucket. (Photos provided by Eleanor Lee.)

By Eleanor Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly

A year ago, I was working for Northwest Asian Weekly as the editor when a crazy opportunity presented itself: to go work in Argentina at Punta Tombo, home of the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world.

I don’t know what I could write that would sound more random. The way it came about is that my husband, Eric, is a Doctor of Philosophy student in Biology at the University of Washington. Dee Boersma, one of his professors, worked at Punta Tombo for 25 years. Each year, she selects two full-time volunteers to spend the entire breeding season, from September to March, at the colony. The volunteers count, measure, band, observe, and conduct experiments on nearly half a million penguins.

Dee asked Eric if he was interested in spending the season there — and since they needed two people — hey, why not bring along his wife as well? Let me tell you upfront that I have no background in science whatsoever. I’ve never done field work in my life. But I do love the outdoors, as I have backpacked quite a bit, and I’ve done trail work a few times. I figured field work couldn’t be too different.

It turned out to be quite a bit different. We literally worked from dawn to dusk most days, for six months straight, without a single day off. It was all penguins, all the time. And it was phenomenal.

Most of us rarely get the chance to be tough, not yell-at-someone-who-cut-you-off-in-traffic tough. I mean get-injured-and-keep-going-anyway tough, work-outdoors-even-when-it’s-completely-dark tough, walk-around-with-blood-and-poop-on-your clothes tough. It’s invigorating in a way that working in an office — no matter how much you love it — can never be.

Top: An adult Magellanic penguin with its four furry chicks cozying up against one another. Bottom: It wasn’t all penguins all the time. Lee found sparrow chicks in a nest. She learned that if she passed her hand over the nest, the chicks would beg. “It’s a cruel trick, but how else could I get such a cute picture? I was doing science,” Lee says.

Top: An adult Magellanic penguin with its four furry chicks cozying up against one another. Bottom: It wasn’t all penguins all the time. Lee found sparrow chicks in a nest. She learned that if she passed her hand over the nest, the chicks would beg. “It’s a cruel trick, but how else could I get such a cute picture? I was doing science,” Lee says.

Also, most of us rarely get the chance to interact with wildlife, in a wild landscape setting, on their terms. Before I went to their world, I thought penguins were cute little birds that waddled around and looked adorable. But in the Patagonian desert, in the unrelenting heat and wind, I watched them fight. I watched them use the dry carcasses of their dead chicks as nesting material. I learned what their behaviors and signals meant. I learned to observe them for hours on end, and I never got tired of it.

When penguins are weighed, they usually aren’t as good-natured as this one.

When penguins are weighed, they usually aren’t as good-natured as this one.

Now that I’m back in Seattle, I notice the world around me a lot more. I would not have called myself an animal lover before, at least not any more than the average person. Eric loves to watch birds, and I used to make fun of him for it.

But after spending so much time around animals, my appreciation for wildlife has really developed. I find myself stopping to observe a robin or a little mouse, something I never would have done before. I notice small motions, behaviors, and markings that I never would have even known to look for before. What formerly served as just a backdrop to my day is now immediate and animated.

The Punta Tombo landscape where Lee worked for six months

The Punta Tombo landscape where Lee worked for six months

I’m still working for the Penguin Project. I spend my days entering all the data that we collected in the field — this is the less glamorous side of field work. It’s monotonous, and I miss working outside.

I also miss the creativity of working at Northwest Asian Weekly. Despite the difficulties and downsides of journalism, it’s certainly not boring or repetitive.

As I punch in number after number and check things off with a little red pen, I’m glad that I had the experience of working in the field, and I’m happy that I’m more aware of the natural world. I also look forward to eventually returning to the writing world, that is if Eric doesn’t get an offer to study elephants. ♦

Eleanor Lee can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

One Response to “From penning articles to penguin wrangling”

  1. Eden says:

    Awesome penguins are so cute!!!

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