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  • This is the most empty place on earth

  • the place almost no one goes-Antarctica.

  • It's the last continent discovered by explorers,

  • the last place to be charted and examined and understood,

  • the last place to be inhabited.

  • Even the wildlife here knows this land is different,

  • and perhaps it is a mark of how harsh this land can be

  • that there is no creature here that cannot swim or fly away.

  • This is the last continent on earth

  • a refuge of sorts for wilderness

  • and for explorers.

  • A half-dozen times in the last decade or so,

  • they've sailed 900 miles south five days at sea,

  • to the islands scattered along the famed Antarctic Peninsula

  • Other expeditions come here with millions of dollars

  • and the power of governments to support them.

  • Sally and Jerome sail by themselves in a small yacht,

  • accompanied only by their children, three boys

  • Dion-10, live... 8 and Diti -5.

  • They trek on remote, rocky islands

  • trying to learn more about this once unknown and foreboding

  • continent of rock and ice

  • while there's still time to protect

  • the unique balance of life that exists here.

  • As usual the Poncets are beginning this voyage in December

  • high summer and vacation time for the boys,

  • when some days might get as warm as 40 degrees.

  • This will not last long the Poncets know.

  • Winter and ice are never very distant here.

  • Now development is coming too.

  • As the Ponects will discover anew on this voyage,

  • this last frontier is changing as never before.

  • The poncets have gradually come to

  • concentrate on the odd and endearing birds

  • that are native to this place.

  • They're concerned now that penguins may become threatened

  • because many countries and claiming interests in the riches

  • that may lie here.

  • The Poncets will use their boat-part research vessel,

  • part home-to search out penguin colonies all along

  • the Antarctic Peninsula.

  • The peninsula reaches up some 700 miles from the continent

  • toward south America.

  • The poncets goal is to survey the size of penguin colonies,

  • that is, to count them

  • all the way to Marguerite Bay at thebottom of the peninsula

  • even further if the ice will allow them.

  • In earlier voyages, they've found many colonies

  • no one else has ever seen.

  • Deception Island-near

  • the northern end of the peninsula,

  • early stop for the Poncets,

  • and the site of a big colony

  • of one of the three penguin species

  • dominant on the peninsula: Chinstraps.

  • Scientists use penguins as a key indicator species

  • to gauge the health of the entire delicate Antarctic ecosystem.

  • To do that, though, they must know how many penguins are actually here.

  • If the penguin population changes radically,

  • the scientists will know something is wrong here.

  • That is why the poncets sail and climb to these remote places

  • to count the birds.

  • You can do a rough estimate by just counting up groups of say

  • 100 and then multiplying in groups of 100.

  • That's a very rough estimate.

  • If you want to do it properly, though,

  • you've got to map out the area that the colony's occupying

  • and then work up average density of the colony and multiply that

  • ...a couple of days work to do it accurately.

  • But you can get a good estimate if you take your time.

  • In a couple of hours, you can get a pretty good estimate of it.

  • But we just compare it with colonies we know from elsewhere,

  • like one in particular with 30 to 40,000 pairs in it.

  • It's a lot smaller than this.

  • This is huge. Must be one of the biggest chinstrap penguin clolonies

  • down on the peninsula

  • I think-this one It's gotta be, I think. It's huge.

  • Chinstrap penguins seldom change mates

  • and they prefer to return to the same nest sites each year

  • to hatch the young.

  • The nests are rings of small stones set just out of pecking range

  • of incubating neighbors.

  • The females usually take the first shift sitting on the eggs,

  • fasting for up to 8 days.

  • Then, the males take over and the females can feed again.

  • Some of the small, shrimp-like krill they find at sea is regurgitated

  • for the penguin chicks.

  • Sally does not spend much time with the colonies here on

  • Deception Island, though.

  • This time her work lies further south.

  • Jerome is French; Sally is Australian.

  • They sail aboard the 50-foot steel hulled Damien II.

  • It can look like a frail ship in amid all the ice and rock,

  • but the ship can take the poncets places that others cannot go,

  • which helps them make a living:

  • They charter the boat for scientists doing coastal surveys.

  • Indeed, Jerome knows his way along this coast, intimately.

  • He first came here almost 20 years ago

  • accompanied by his friend, Gerard Janichon,

  • who has rejoined him for this voyage.

  • It's unusual to sail in the Antarctic now,

  • but it was truly extraordinary then.

  • Theirs was the first yacht to sail the peninsula coast.

  • The adventure made them heroes in France.

  • Fees from a book allowed each of them to build bigger

  • and better versions of first vessel.

  • But new boats don't eliminate the four hour watches throughout

  • this two-month journey

  • or the sameness of stored food,

  • or the confining conditions of life at sea.

  • These they simply get used to.

  • But anyone who's lived on a yacht or on a boat can tell you,

  • you get used to shifts: Four hours on, four hours off.

  • Or whatever you happen to do.

  • And it's just something you get used to.

  • You can't have exactly what you want to eat or drink

  • when you feel like it.

  • Or you can't wash every day if you want to,

  • or you can't go down to the nearest pub for a drink

  • just to get away from it.

  • You just accept that.

  • It just, it might look difficult to people,

  • but until you... it would be far more difficult for him to have

  • to get into a car every morning and drive to work.

  • The Damien II averages 26 miles a day now,

  • with stops along the way.

  • Working from cove to cove

  • they arrive at cuverville Island

  • a breeding site for many many Gentoo penguins.

  • Their pelts are sleek as fur but like all penguins,

  • these are true birds.

  • Short, thick feathers help insulate them from the cold,

  • and at the same time lie close to the body to help

  • the speedy swimmers in the water.

  • This will be the first egg because its dirtier,

  • and this is the second.

  • The second egg is suppose to be a bit smaller that the first.

  • But they look about the same size really.

  • That one there, though-she's just about to get off

  • that-you can really tell the difference there.

  • The Gentoos are apt to form life-long

  • attachments among breeding pairs

  • although they are not so particular about which nest site

  • they use from season to season.

  • On the peninsula,

  • it takes about five weeks for penguin eggs to hatch.

  • The parents watch over them for another month or so,

  • and then leave the chicks in large groups while the parents

  • are off gathering good.

  • One or two months later the young penguins begin to feed on their own.

  • What beautiful nests these ones are well made

  • anyway, with the stones like that

  • and they all seem to be just sitting right.

  • You remember the chinstraps at Deception-

  • all mucky, all smelly in all directions?

  • These are all nice and neat...

  • I think these are probably the prettiest of the birds.

  • By now Sally and Jerome

  • have witnessed this cycle of penguin life many times

  • and still Antarctica fascinates them.

  • The first time we come...

  • just well, put the foot ashore.

  • That was an achievement for us at least.

  • And we are very pleased with that.

  • We've been a bit scared we've been fighting

  • to reach Antarctica... and after we come back a bit more confident

  • and you go a bit further.

  • And that's what we've done

  • just going farther and farther each time, knowing a bit more.

  • And when you start to know a place you-why,

  • it starts to belong to you or you belong to this place.

  • And that's what's happened to us.