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Mission Blue Voyage

Dee Boersma: Pay attention to penguins

April 10, 2010

Think of penguins as ocean sentinels, says Dee Boersma -- they're on the frontlines of sea change. Sharing stories of penguin life and culture, she suggests that we start listening to what penguins are telling us.

Dee Boersma - Conservation biologist
Dee Boersma considers penguins ocean sentinels, helping us understand the effects of pollution, overfishing and climate change on the marine environment. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I want to talk about penguins today.
00:16
But first, I want to start by saying that
00:18
we need a new operating system,
00:20
for the oceans and for the Earth.
00:22
When I came to the Galapagos 40 years ago,
00:25
there were 3,000 people
00:27
that lived in the Galapagos.
00:29
Now there are over 30,000.
00:32
There were two Jeeps on Santa Cruz.
00:34
Now, there are around a thousand trucks
00:37
and buses and cars there.
00:39
So the fundamental problems that we face
00:42
are overconsumption and too many people.
00:45
It's the same problems in the Galapagos,
00:48
except, obviously,
00:50
it's worse here, in some ways, than other places.
00:52
Because we've only doubled the population of the Earth
00:55
since the 1960s -- a little more than doubled --
00:58
but we have 6.7 billion people in the world,
01:01
and we all like to consume.
01:04
And one of the major problems that we have
01:06
is our operating system
01:08
is not giving us the proper feedback.
01:10
We're not paying the true
01:12
environmental costs of our actions.
01:14
And when I came at age 22 to live on Fernandina,
01:17
let me just say, that I had never
01:20
camped before.
01:22
I had never lived alone
01:24
for any period of time,
01:26
and I'd never slept with sea lions
01:28
snoring next to me all night.
01:30
But moreover, I'd never lived on an uninhabited island.
01:33
Punta Espinosa is where I lived for over a year,
01:36
and we call it uninhabited
01:38
because there are no people there.
01:40
But it's alive with life;
01:42
it's hardly uninhabited.
01:44
So a lot has happened in the last 40 years,
01:47
and what I learned when I came to the Galapagos
01:50
is the importance of wild places, wild things,
01:52
certainly wildlife,
01:55
and the amazing qualities that penguins have.
01:57
Penguins are real athletes:
02:00
They can swim 173 kilometers in a day.
02:02
They can swim at the same speed day and night --
02:05
that's faster than any Olympic swimmer.
02:08
I mean, they can do like seven kilometers an hour
02:10
and sustain it.
02:12
But what is really amazing, because of this deepness here,
02:14
Emperor penguins can go down
02:17
more than 500 meters
02:19
and they can hold their breath for 23 minutes.
02:21
Magellanic penguins, the ones that I work on,
02:23
they can dive to about 90 meters
02:26
and they can stay down for
02:28
about 4.6 minutes.
02:30
Humans, without fins: 90 meters, 3.5 minutes.
02:32
And I doubt anybody in this room
02:35
could really hold their breath for 3.5 minutes.
02:37
You have to train to be able to do that.
02:40
So penguins are amazing athletes.
02:42
The other thing is, I've never met anybody
02:44
that really doesn't say that they like penguins.
02:46
They're comical, they walk upright,
02:49
and, of course, they're diligent.
02:52
And, more importantly, they're well-dressed.
02:54
So they have all the criteria
02:56
that people normally like.
02:58
But scientifically, they're amazing because they're sentinels.
03:00
They tell us about our world in a lot of different ways,
03:03
and particularly the ocean.
03:06
This is a picture of a Galapagos penguin
03:08
that's on the front of a little zodiac here in the Galapagos.
03:10
And that's what I came to study.
03:13
I thought I was going to study the social behavior of Galapagos penguins,
03:15
but you already know
03:18
penguins are rare.
03:20
These are the rarest penguins in the world.
03:22
Why I thought I was going to be able to do that, I don't know.
03:24
But the population has changed
03:27
dramatically since I was first here.
03:29
When I counted penguins for the first time
03:31
and tried to do a census,
03:33
we just counted all the individual beaks that we could
03:35
around all these islands.
03:37
We counted around 2,000, so I don't know how many penguins there really are,
03:40
but I know I can count 2,000.
03:43
If you go and do it now, the national parks
03:45
count about 500.
03:48
So we have a quarter of the penguins
03:50
that we did 40 years ago.
03:52
And this is true of most of our living systems.
03:54
We have less than we had before,
03:57
and most of them are in fairly steep decline.
03:59
And I want to just show you a little bit about why.
04:02
(Braying)
04:04
That's a penguin braying
04:09
to tell you that
04:11
it's important to pay attention to penguins.
04:13
Most important of all,
04:15
I didn't know what that was the first time I heard it.
04:17
And you can imagine sleeping on Fernandina your first night there
04:20
and you hear this lonesome, plaintful call.
04:23
I fell in love with penguins,
04:27
and it certainly has changed the rest of my life.
04:29
What I found out I was studying
04:31
is really the difference in how the Galapagos changes,
04:33
the most extreme variation.
04:36
You've heard about these El Ninos,
04:38
but this is the extreme that penguins all over the world
04:41
have to adapt to.
04:43
This is a cold-water event
04:45
called La Nina.
04:47
Where it's blue and it's green, it means the water is really cold.
04:49
And so you can see this current coming up --
04:52
in this case, the Humboldt Current --
04:54
that comes all the way out to the Galapagos Islands,
04:56
and this deep undersea current, the Cromwell Current,
04:59
that upwells around the Galapagos.
05:02
That brings all the nutrients:
05:04
When this is cold in the Galapagos,
05:06
it's rich, and there's plenty of food for everyone.
05:09
When we have extreme El Nino events,
05:12
you see all this red,
05:14
and you see no green
05:16
out here around the Galapagos.
05:18
That means that there's no upwelling,
05:20
and there's basically no food.
05:22
So it's a real desert
05:25
for not only for the penguins and the sea lions and the marine iguanas ...
05:27
things die when there's no food.
05:30
But we didn't even know that that
05:32
affected the Galapagos when I went to study penguins.
05:34
And you can imagine being on an island hoping you're going to see penguins,
05:37
and you're in the middle of an El Nino event
05:40
and there are no penguins.
05:42
They're not breeding; they're not even around.
05:44
I studied marine iguanas at that point.
05:46
But this is a global phenomenon, we know that.
05:49
And if you look along the coast of Argentina, where I work now,
05:52
at a place called Punta Tombo --
05:54
the largest Magellanic penguin colony in the world
05:56
down here about 44 degrees south latitude --
05:58
you see that there's great variation here.
06:02
Some years, the cold water
06:04
goes all the way up to Brazil,
06:06
and other years, in these La Nina years, it doesn't.
06:08
So the oceans don't always act together; they act differently,
06:11
but that is the kind of variation
06:14
that penguins have to live with,
06:16
and it's not easy.
06:18
So when I went to study the Magellanic penguins,
06:20
I didn't have any problems.
06:22
There were plenty of them.
06:24
This is a picture at Punta Tombo in February
06:26
showing all the penguins along the beach.
06:28
I went there because the Japanese wanted to start harvesting them
06:30
and turning them into high fashion golf gloves,
06:33
protein and oil.
06:36
Fortunately, nobody has harvested any penguins
06:38
and we're getting over 100,000 tourists a year to see them.
06:41
But the population is declining
06:44
and it's declined fairly substantially, about 21 percent
06:47
since 1987, when I started these surveys,
06:50
in terms of number of active nests.
06:53
Here, you can see where Punta Tombo is,
06:55
and they breed in incredibly dense colonies.
06:57
We know this because of long-term science,
06:59
because we have long-term studies there.
07:02
And science is important in informing decision makers,
07:04
and also in changing how we do
07:07
and knowing the direction of change that we're going in.
07:09
And so we have this penguin project. The Wildlife Conservation Society
07:12
has funded me along with a lot of individuals
07:15
over the last 27 years
07:18
to be able to produce these kinds of maps.
07:20
And also, we know that it's not only
07:22
Galapagos penguins that are in trouble,
07:24
but Magellanics and many other species of penguins.
07:26
And so we have started a global penguin society
07:29
to try to focus on the real plight of penguins.
07:32
This is one of the plights of penguins: oil pollution.
07:35
Penguins don't like oil
07:38
and they don't like to swim through oil.
07:40
The nice thing is, if you look down here in Argentina,
07:42
there's no surface oil pollution from this composite map.
07:44
But, in fact, when we went to Argentina,
07:47
penguins were often found
07:49
totally covered in oil.
07:51
So they were just minding their own business.
07:54
They ended up swimming through ballast water that had oil in it.
07:56
Because when tankers carry oil
07:59
they have to have ballast at some point,
08:01
so when they're empty, they have the ballast water in there.
08:03
When they come back, they actually dump
08:05
this oily ballast water into the ocean.
08:07
Why do they do that? Because it's cheaper,
08:09
because they don't pay the real environmental costs.
08:11
We usually don't, and we want to start
08:14
getting the accounting system right
08:16
so we can pay the real cost.
08:18
At first, the Argentine government said, "No, there's no way.
08:20
You can't find oiled penguins in Argentina.
08:22
We have laws,
08:24
and we can't have illegal dumping; it's against the law."
08:26
So we ended up spending nine years
08:29
convincing the government that there were lots of oiled penguins.
08:31
In some years, like this year, we found
08:34
more than 80 percent
08:36
of the adult penguins dead on the beach
08:38
were covered in oil.
08:40
These little blue dots are the fledglings --
08:42
we do this survey every March --
08:45
which means that they're only in the environment
08:47
from January until March,
08:50
so maybe three months at the most
08:52
that they could get covered in oil.
08:54
And you can see, in some years over 60 percent
08:56
of the fledglings were oiled.
08:58
Eventually, the government listened
09:00
and, amazingly, they changed their laws.
09:02
They moved the tanker lanes
09:05
40 kilometers farther off shore,
09:07
and people are not doing as much illegal dumping.
09:10
So what we're seeing now
09:13
is very few penguins are oiled.
09:15
Why are there even these penguins oiled?
09:17
Because we've solved the problem in Chubut province,
09:19
which is like a state in Argentina
09:22
where Punta Tombo is --
09:25
so that's about 1,000 kilometers of coastline --
09:27
but we haven't solved the problem
09:29
in northern Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil.
09:31
So now I want to show you that penguins are affected.
09:35
I'm just going to talk about two things.
09:37
This is climate change. Now this has really been a fun study
09:39
because I put satellite tags on the back
09:42
of these Magellanic penguins.
09:44
Try to convince donors to give you a couple thousand dollars
09:46
to glue a satellite tag on the back of penguins.
09:49
But we've been doing this now for more than a decade to learn where they go.
09:52
We thought we needed a marine protected area
09:55
of about 30 kilometers,
09:57
and then we put a satellite tag on the back of a penguin.
09:59
And what the penguins show us --
10:01
and these are all the little dots
10:03
from where the penguins' positions were
10:05
for penguins in incubation in 2003 --
10:07
and what you see is some of these individuals
10:09
are going 800 kilometers away from their nests.
10:12
So that means as their mate
10:15
is sitting on the nest incubating the eggs,
10:17
the other one is out there foraging,
10:20
and the longer they have to stay gone,
10:22
the worse condition the mate is in when the mate comes back.
10:24
And, of course, all of this then leads to a vicious cycle
10:27
and you can't raise a lot of chicks.
10:30
Here you see in 2003 --
10:32
these are all the dots of where the penguins are --
10:34
they were raising a little over
10:36
a half of a chick.
10:38
Here, you can see in 2006,
10:41
they raised almost three quarters
10:43
of a chick per nest,
10:45
and you can see that they're closer to Punta Tombo;
10:47
they're not going as far away.
10:50
This past year, in 2009,
10:53
you can see that they're now raising
10:55
about a fourth of a chick,
10:57
and some of these individuals are going
10:59
more than 900 kilometers away from their nests.
11:01
So it's kind of like you having a job in Chicago,
11:04
and then you get transferred
11:06
to St. Louis,
11:08
and your mate is not happy about this
11:10
because you've got to pay airfare,
11:12
because you're gone longer.
11:14
The same thing's true for penguins as well.
11:16
And they're going about, on average now,
11:19
40 kilometers farther than they did a decade ago.
11:21
We need to be able to get information out to the general public.
11:25
And so we started a publication
11:28
with the Society for Conservation
11:30
that we think presents cutting-edge science
11:32
in a new, novel way,
11:34
because we have reporters that are good writers
11:36
that actually can distill the information
11:39
and make it accessible to the general public.
11:41
So if you're interested in cutting-edge science
11:44
and smarter conservation,
11:46
you should join with our 11 partners --
11:48
some of them here in this room, like the Nature Conservancy --
11:51
and look at this magazine
11:54
because we need to get information out about conservation
11:56
to the general public.
11:59
Lastly I want to say that
12:01
all of you, probably,
12:03
have had some relationship at some time in your life
12:05
with a dog, a cat, some sort of pet,
12:07
and you recognized that those are individuals.
12:10
And some of you consider them almost part of your family.
12:12
If you had a relationship with a penguin,
12:15
you'd see it in the same sort of way.
12:18
They're amazing creatures
12:20
that really change how you view the world
12:22
because they're not that different from us:
12:24
They're trying to make a living,
12:26
they're trying to raise their offspring,
12:28
they're trying to get on and survive in the world.
12:30
This is Turbo the Penguin.
12:33
Turbo's never been fed.
12:35
He met us and got his name
12:37
because he started standing under
12:39
my diesel truck: a turbo truck,
12:41
so we named him Turbo.
12:43
Turbo has taken to knocking on the door with his beak,
12:45
we let him in and he comes in here.
12:47
And I just wanted to show you
12:49
what happened one day
12:51
when Turbo brought in a friend.
12:53
So this is Turbo.
12:56
He's coming up to one of my graduate students and flipper patting,
12:58
which he would do to a female penguin.
13:01
And you can see, he's not trying to bite.
13:05
This guy has never been in before
13:07
and he's trying to figure out, "What is going on?
13:09
What is this guy doing?
13:11
This is really pretty weird."
13:13
And you'll see soon
13:15
that my graduate student ...
13:17
and you see, Turbo's pretty intent
13:19
on his flipper patting.
13:21
And now he's looking at the other guy,
13:23
saying, "You are really weird."
13:25
And now look at this: not friendly.
13:27
So penguins really differ in their personalities
13:29
just like our dogs and our cats.
13:32
We're also trying to collect our information
13:35
and become more technologically literate.
13:38
So we're trying to put that
13:41
in computers in the field.
13:43
And penguins are always involved in helping us
13:45
or not helping us in one way or another.
13:48
This is a radio frequency ID system.
13:51
You put a little piece of rice in the foot of a penguin
13:54
that has a barcode, so it tells you who it is.
13:57
It walks over the pad, and you know who it is.
13:59
Okay, so here are a few penguins coming in.
14:01
See, this one's coming back to its nest.
14:04
They're all coming in at this time,
14:06
walking across there, just kind of leisurely coming in.
14:08
Here's a female that's in a hurry. She's got food.
14:10
She's really rushing back, because it's hot,
14:12
to try to feed her chicks.
14:15
And then there's another fellow that will leisurely come by.
14:17
Look how fat he is. He's walking back to feed his chicks.
14:20
Then I realize that they're playing
14:23
king of the box.
14:25
This is my box up here, and this is the system that works.
14:28
You can see this penguin, he goes over, he looks at those wires,
14:31
does not like that wire.
14:34
He unplugs the wire; we have no data.
14:37
(Laughter)
14:40
So, they really are pretty amazing creatures.
14:42
OK.
14:47
Most important thing is:
14:49
Only you can change yourself,
14:51
and only you can change the world
14:53
and make it better, for people
14:55
as well as penguins.
14:57
So, thank you very much. (Applause)
14:59

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Dee Boersma - Conservation biologist
Dee Boersma considers penguins ocean sentinels, helping us understand the effects of pollution, overfishing and climate change on the marine environment.

Why you should listen

To Dee Boersma, penguins are more than charming birds in tuxes. Highly sensitive to variations in the ocean, penguins are sentinels, sounding the alarm on environmental threats to marine ecosystems. As director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Penguin Project, she has dedicated almost three decades to tracking them in the South Atlantic. Using "nametags" -- numbered metal bands -- Boersma and her team follow hundreds of individual penguins to learn where they go, what they eat and how they survive to the next breeding season.

Boersma's studies show that the birds must now swim further in search of food, costing energy and time, leading to detrimental consequences for their mate and young. Her data does not paint a pretty picture, but local conservation efforts she spearheaded, such as moving oil tanker lanes further from the coast, have been successful. Humans, she notes, are responsible for penguins' current woes but can also be their saviors.

The original video is available on TED.com
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