March of the Penguins

I wrote out the dialogue of the movie, “March of the Penguins” for my language partner a year-and-a-half ago, and this post is for another English learner. I could only find the first half hour in my notes, but at least it is something….

The actor Morgan Freeman does the voice over…..

There are few places harder to get to in this world, but there aren’t any where it is harder to live. The average temperature here at the bottom of the Earth is a balmy fifty-eight degrees below. That’s when the sun is out. It wasn’t always like this. Antarctica used to be a tropical place. Densely forested and teaming with life. But then, the continents started to drift south, and by the time it was done drifting, the dense forests had all been replaced with a new ground cover.


Ice. As for the former inhabitants, they’d all died or moved on long ago. Well, almost all of them. Legend has it that one tribe stayed behind. Perhaps they thought the change in weather was only temporary, or maybe they were just stubborn. But whatever their reasons, these stalwart souls refused to leave. For millions of years, they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth, and they have done so, pretty much alone. So in some ways, this is the story of survival, a tale of life over death. But it’s more than that really. This is a story about love.


Like most love stories, it begins with an act of utter foolishness. The Emperor penguin is technically a bird, although one that makes his home in the sea. So if you’re wondering what he is doing up here on the ice, well, that’s part of our story. Each year, at around the same time, he will leave the comfort of his ocean home, and embark on a remarkable journey. He will travel a great distance, and though he is a bird, he won’t fly. Though he lives in the sea, he won’t swim. Mostly he will walk, but he won’t walk alone.


It is March. Summer is over, another long polar winter is about to begin. The birds have been feeding in the warm ocean waters for three months. Their bellies full, it is time to find a mate. Their breeding ground can be up to seventy miles away. To get there, they will walk day and night, continuously, sometimes for a week. It is a long, dangerous and seemingly impossible journey, and some of them will not survive it. Nonetheless, when the last of the clan has finally clambored onto the ice, their long march will begin, just as it has for thousands of years.


The destination is always the same. Their path, however, is not. The ice on which the birds travel never stops shifting, and changing, new road blocks will appear to baffle them, every year. We’re not exactly sure how they find their way. Perhaps they are assisted by the sun, or the stars, or maybe having taken the path for thousands of generations they are guided by some invisible compass within them. They never stay stumped for long. They eventually, one of them, will pick up the trail and the journey continues. When they get tired of walking, they’ll give their feet a rest. They’ll use their bellies instead.


Theirs is usually a graceful parade, but not always. Each day, the temperature drops a little further, and the sun will set earlier. The weather becomes noticeably harsher, almost by the hour. By now, similar caravans are approaching from every direction…and finally, often on the same day, even around the same time, they will arrive at the place where each and every one of them was born.


Here they will mate in relative safety. They are now far from the water’s edge, where most predators lurk, and the large ice walls will offer some protection from the harshest winds. But the real reason they have chosen this place lies beneath their feet. The ice is thicker here. It will stay solid until summer, keeping their young from accidentally falling through into the freezing ocean. And so, having arrived they begin to pursue their journey’s purpose…finding a mate. We don’t really know what they’re looking for in a partner. We only know that they are, in fact, looking. We also know when they have found what they are looking for.


Emperor penguins are monogamous, sort of, they mate with only one partner per year, which means that every new season all bets are off. Because there are fewer males than females here, hostilities among the ladies are inevitable. A taken male instantly becomes an unavailable male so occasionally a female will attempt to interrupt a courtship. The men don’t seem to mind, they just wait for the fight to end, and take the opportunity to preen. They’re not that different from us really. They pout, they bellow, they strut and occasionally they will engage in some contact sports. Within a few weeks, one way or the other, most of the animals have found the one they are looking for.


For the next eight months, these two will participate in an ancient and complicated affair. There will be tenderness. There will be separation. There will be reunion, and if their partnership is successful, there will be new life. For now, they wait, for the egg and the brutal winter that will do everything in its power to destroy that egg. By May, the light will nearly have disappeared from the sky and the temperature continues to drop…and for those who began their march too late or have fallen behind because of weakness or hunger, hope of survival is now remote. The long penguin has no chance against the winters’ cold. He will simply fade away, absorbed by the great whiteness all around him.


As winter descends the tribe’s only defense against the freezing cold, is the group itself. It is almost as if they create a whole other organism all together. The huddled animals form a single moving mass, one designed for the sole purpose of sustaining warmth. Winter’s first storm is upon them. Within a few weeks, days begin to pass with virtually no light at all. Moons come and go, in the soon to be endless night. And finally, one day in early June, we remember why they came here.


As soon as the egg appears, it is instantly hidden from the cold. The tiny beating heart within the shell cannot survive much more than a moment’s exposure to the freezing air. From now on, the couple has but a single goal, keeping their egg alive. The hungry mother must return at once to the sea to eat, but before she leaves she must entrust the egg to its father. Some, young couples perhaps, are too impulsive or rushed, and within moments their affair comes to an end. They can only watch as the ice claims their egg and the life within it. This couple’s partnership is now over. The long march in vain. With no reason to stay, they will wander back to the sea. Other couples have lost their egg as well. As for the others, the partnership is about to change. With unending patience, the pair rehearses the steps they will need to transfer the egg from the mother to the father. They practice this clumsy ballet dozens of times if need be, and then with great care, they will dance it. And now begins one of natures’ most incredible and endearing role reversals. It is the penguin male who will tend the couple’s single egg, while the mother feeds and gathers food to bring back for the new born. It is the father who will shield the egg from the violent winds and cold. He will make a nest for the egg, atop his own claws, keeping it safe and warm, beneath a flap of skin on his belly, and he will do this for more than two months.


Having past the egg, the exhausted female must depart quickly. She must eat soon or she will die. As the winter progresses, the father will be severely tested. The mother will be tested as well. Her return trip to the sea is considerably more difficult than the original march to the nesting place. It is colder now, and she will have lost almost a third of her body weight producing the egg. She is literally starving. Of course, the fathers are nearly starving too, but for them a meal is far off in the distance. By the time their vigil atop the egg is over, the penguin fathers will have gone without food of any kind for over 125 days, and they will have endured one of the most violent and deadly winters on Earth, all for the chick.


As the fathers settle in for their long wait at the breeding grounds, the winter’s second storm arrives. The temperature is now eighty degrees below zero. That’s without taking into account the wind, which can blow a hundred miles per hour.


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