by Tom Dillon
“Unfortunately, the penguins are in the middle of an nasty fight for independence, so there may be some . . . inconsistencies with your visit.” When I heard the guide say this, I thought it was a joke. Apparently, others did, too, there were snickers and someone asked if they got anything for paying attention. “No, no, I’m serious. Last summer, the Magellan penguins declared their independence, but it has taken this long for the Emperor penguins to get a counterinsurgency force up here.”
The bus rolled to a stop, backing into a slot between two others, and we all got out. My laughter died at the sight of a CNN van parked by the entrance, its satellite broadcasting rig extended skyward. Our guide showed his badge and we were waved through the gates onto a wooden walkway that led out towards the beach. Our guide gave us a brief lecture about how important the penguin sanctuary was and what we were and were not allowed to do, which boiled down to: don’t screw the place up, stay behind the fences.
There was a huge crowd gathered at the first station, so I did the circuit in reverse order. There were a bunch of penguins walking around, some with dark green armbands – guards, apparently. The majority of the area was taken up by a large rectangle of dirt that had been formed into a map. Small wooden statues were being moved by short penguins – aides – while the larger ones argued, flapping their wings and honking at one another. A large Emperor Penguin was shackled off to one side, it’s right wing wrapped in a bandage. Even seated, it was taller than the Magellans. I started taking pictures as fast as my camera could adjust its lenses.
I continued, seeing penguin barracks, supply depots, troops everywhere. The guide hadn’t been lying. Finally, I made it to the main viewing area. There was still a huge conglomeration of tourists, all pressed up to the viewing platform and taking pictures. Someone said something, and apparently it was time for the previous group to leave, because they half of the crowd started to file out. I worked my way through the crowd until I was at the viewing station, a wall with steps to stand on and long, horizontal slits to watch out of.
From next to me, I heard a man ask why the park service didn’t intervene. The guide responded that they were forbidden to interfere, that the penguins needed to work things out for themselves. Someone to my left noisily vomited.
On the beach, the Emperors seemed to be in retreat, being pushed back by a phalanx of the smaller Magellans. They were both armed with spears and shields, but it seemed that the larger penguins were suffering difficulties due to their lack of mobility. The Magellans had managed to maneuver themselves between the Emperors and the sea, and were mercilessly pushing the Emperors back towards a wall of solid earth several feet high.
Realizing their defeat, the Emperors dropped their weapons, holding their wings above their heads in surrender. The Magellans let out a ragged cheer, or at least the penguin equivalent, as they celebrated their victory. Most of the crowd shared in the Magellans’ excitement, but I couldn’t stop looking at the bodies of the dead and wounded penguins on the sand. The Magellans may have won the battle, but I wondered how many more there would be before it was over. When I looked around and saw my emotions mirrored on the guide’s face, my heart sank.
The crowd’s excitement brought my attention back to penguins on the battlefield. The largest Magellan that had been in the planning room had come out to the battlefield, and the ranks parted to let him through. One of the Emperors emerged from the ranks of the defeated to stand in front of the Magellan general. Even though the Magellan was dwarfed by his counterpart, having to look up, its dominance was clear, forcing the Emperor back a step with its presence. They conferred, arguing, and in the end it appeared that the Magellans got the better end of the deal. The mass of Magellans surged with another victory cry, and the Emperors shrank in defeat. The prisoner that I had seen in command was brought out and its shackles removed for it to join its comrades. The Magellan general created a path to the sea with a sweep of its arm, and the Emperors filed out to sea, leaving the colony forever.
I stood in shock, my camera forgotten, as I realized that I had just seen the Magellan penguins achieve their independence. I turned to see the guide standing next to me, pushed up against the viewing area as close as any of the tourists.
“I was rooting for them the whole time,” the guide said.