It wasn't what Ed and Paige Turner were expecting to see as they rounded Gull Island. The longtime owner-operators of Turner’s Boat Tours have been ferrying sightseers around the islands of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in eastern Newfoundland for more than two decades, making the usual stops to gaze at whales and seabirds, including puffins, petrels and gannets. But on a recent boat ride to test some new gear ahead of the coming tourist season, the husband and wife team spotted something that shocked them: a penguin.
“At first I just saw something moving - something a fair bit larger than what we’re used to seeing out on these islands,” begins Ed. “So out came my binoculars and, I tell you, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Still can’t.” Paige was just as taken aback when she took her turn with the binoculars. “To be honest, I was beginning to wonder if there was something wrong with the tea we’d been drinking,” she laughs. “But there he was, plain as day, just waddling around like he owned the place.”
What the Turners saw through their binoculars on Gull Island was later confirmed to be a king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus), the second largest of the world’s penguin species. Standing as tall as 95 cm when full grown, they tower over the seabirds that regularly flock to Witless Bay each spring. They primarily inhabit the Antarctic region, and have been found as far north as the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego, but this marks the first time one has been reported in North America (outside of a zoo).
From his boat, Ed managed to take several photographs and a short video of the penguin before it finally moved out of his line of sight. He emailed it all to Memorial University, where Dr. Shirley Knott, a professor of marine biology, identified the species and gender: male.
“I was quite alarmed,” says Dr. Knott, who is currently collaborating with researchers in Argentina to figure out just how the flightless bird could have wound up so far from home, and what the implications of its arrival might be.
“Of course, any time a species is introduced to a new region the major concern is what affect it might have on the native flora and fauna,” says Dr. Knott, adding it seems as though the penguin has adapted well to its surroundings. “According to the images I’ve seen, and my colleagues abroad have seen, the penguin appears to be thriving, showing no signs of emaciation or feather loss.”
Regarding its mysterious arrival, Dr. Knott says there are no plausible theories yet. A more pressing issue, she says, is whether or not the penguin should remain in its new home.
“It’s an unprecedented occurrence, so there’s really no good way of knowing how a king penguin might interact with, say, our provincial bird when it returns for breeding season. Will the puffins shy away from their regular nesting sites because of this massive bird they’ve never encountered before? Who’s to say?”
An Alberta zoo has expressed interest in housing the penguin in its Antarctic exhibit, and a local moving company has offered to transport the large bird across the country free of charge. Others, including Ed and Paige, are hoping the penguin gets to stay.
“If the little bugger managed to get all the way up here, I says he should be allowed to stay!” says Ed. Paige agrees, and adds that the possibility of a penguin sighting would be a boon for their boat tours, due to begin in June. “Oh my God, I hope he gets to stick around for the summer,” says Paige. “Or at least until April Fools’ Day.” GOTCHA!