August 11, 2016

Shoreline of Punta San Juan, Peru Shoreline of Punta San Juan, Peru

Although most people think of penguins as cold weather birds, most live in temperate or even tropical habitats, and many Humboldt penguins live and breed where one of the earth's driest deserts meets one of the coldest ocean currents in Punta San Juan, Peru.

Approximately half of the entire population of the threatened Humboldt penguin population calls Punta San Juan home. There, the continental shelf comes very close to the coast line creating an upwelling of cold nutrient rich water—conditions that provide a fertile environment for the anchoveta, the primary food source of the penguin and many other sea birds and marine mammals.

Punta San Juan, Peru is the site for the Zoo's WildCare Center for Conservation focused on creating a network of protected areas along the Peruvian Coast. There scientists (many from our Zoo) conduct annual Humboldt penguin censuses to monitor population size. They also perform health assessments, collecting biological data on penguins and other marine animals there.

Humboldt penguins Humboldt penguins

To conduct a critical assessment of this population, Saint Louis Zoo's Director of the Institute
for Conservation Medicine (ICM) Dr. Sharon L. Deem, Penguin Keeper Samantha Griffin and ICM Technician Jamie Palmer travelled to Punta San Juan. Joining the Saint Louis Zoo team in their 10-day travels were Dr. Megan Watson, Veterinary Resident with the Chicago Zoological Society, and Dr. Julie Sheldon, Zoological Intern with the University of Tennessee.

For six days, the team performed health assessments of Humboldt penguins, working with Peruvian colleagues and Center staff, Susana Cardenas, Paulo Colchao, and Marco Cardena. Here are their impressions from an experience they saw as a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the conservation of this incredible species and the amazing ecosystem these penguins call home.

Dr. Deem performing health assessment of Humboldt penguin Dr. Deem performing health assessment of Humboldt penguin

Dr. Sharon L. Deem

Arriving at Punta San Juan late in the evening of June 13 following a 9-hour drive from Lima to Marcona, I knew we had made it to our destination from the second the van door opened. Although a bit frazzled from the drive, I was struck from the moment I jumped out of the van by the sounds and smells—much the same as I recall from 15 years ago when I last came here. There is no place on the planet like Punta San Juan, and there in the dark with the sounds and smells, I knew I was back. Falling asleep to the continual "talking" of the fur seals on our doorsteps, it wasn't until the next morning in the light of day that I walked out to see the thousands of fur seals, sea lions, cormorants, penguins, boobies, terns and various other marine species right before my eyes. Punta San Juan is a place where the ocean meets the land and the sky.

We worked hard for the next six days and some nights, both at Punta San Juan and then back in Marcona at our makeshift laboratory. Half of our long 12-hour days were spent in the field performing veterinary examinations of penguins and placing GPS tracking devices on a subset of 54 penguins. We quickly fell into a rhythm with each person providing their skills so that we could safely handle each penguin, while gathering much needed scientific data. Gaining an understanding of the health of the penguins and their foraging patterns will help us better conserve the species.

Jamie Palmer (second from left) and the team begin the morning with seaside yoga Jamie Palmer (second from left) and the team begin the morning with seaside yoga

Jamie Palmer

Most of us live in an urban or suburban world, with all the lights and sounds of the hustle and bustle around us an ever present overstimulation to our senses. So when these go away and we experience what true dark is or hear unique sounds, it's a shock to our senses. I felt incredibly lucky that I was able to know what stars look like when it's truly, truly dark at night and to hear the sounds of fur seals without having a clue what type of animal that odd sound was coming from because we arrived at the station late and couldn't see more than a foot in front of our faces. Without sight, other senses are heightened and that made for an awesome first impression of Punta San Juan, to say the least.

Driving up to the reserve with only the headlights of the van, it looked like we had landed on Mars—no trees, no plants, nothing but rocks and guano (guano—bird feces—where the penguins lay their eggs). It was disappearing before conservationists worked to preserve it. Now, the penguins in Peru have benefited from guano reserves, where the birds can make their nests. Guano mining in the reserves is limited, and those who do mine must sign a contract to protect the penguins).

I was ready to see what it all looked like in the light of day and to see Humboldt penguins in the wild for the first time. And the next morning didn't disappoint! To describe this amazing place and its abundant wildlife as breathtaking is an understatement.

Humboldt penguin chicks Humboldt penguin chicks

Our little team fell into a grove pretty quickly. Beyond excited that this is my job, I found it difficult not to practically skip out to the cliff edge where the penguins we were looking for were nesting. No skipping is allowed, of course, because it is very easy to stress the hundreds of marine birds that call Punta San Juan home. At some points when hiking out to our sample sites, we would have to slowly walk crouched down in a straight line, one behind the other, so as not to stress anyone out. We spent the next six days in the field performing health assessments and then processing samples in the lab each evening.

Down time at the reserve was often spent discussing the challenges we face trying to conserve these wild places that are so heavily threatened by the human world around them. In true conservation medicine form, conversations always turned to the same question, "how do we work together to find a balance?" And the talk can get heavy because this work we do, seemingly small to the outside world, can sometimes feel like a losing battle. But knowing there are such intelligent, good people devoting their careers and lives to finding this balance for a healthier planet for all of us gives me hope that we will get there. The occasional early morning yoga sessions overlooking the ocean helped, too!

Samantha Griffin examines a Humboldt penguin chick Samantha Griffin examines a Humboldt penguin chick

Samantha Griffin

On June 12, 2016 I made my way to the airport to begin my journey to Peru. Having never been out of North America and only out of the U.S. a few times, I was both excited, and yet nervous, to begin my journey to Punta San Juan. I was not only going to what was for me a foreign land, but I was also going to be away from anyone I really knew and the comforts of home for 10 days! I definitely was not going to let this opportunity to travel someplace amazing pass me by. From the moment I met Sharon and Jamie at the airport, I immediately felt more at ease. I had met them once or twice in passing but did not really "know" them.

The plane ride and 9-hour drive from Lima to Punta San Juan were not nearly as bad as I had anticipated, and on my first morning waking up at the reserve after meeting all the Punta San Juan staff, I immediately felt comfortable. My anxiety went away. I had never been to this place and had only heard stories but yet it already felt like a home away from home.

Punta San Juan was a whole new world unlike anything I could have imagined. From the walk to the various beaches and nesting grounds, you'd think you were on the moon or mars; it was flat, barren, dry, windy and bright from the sun shining down on the faded dirt, sand and guano that has been building for years. Divots and craters from unused, abandoned cormorant nests in the ground made it even more un-earthly. It felt as though we were being led to the edge of nowhere until we reached the ledge where below us were beautiful rocky shorelines, with blue waves crashing against the rocks and the beaches booming with life.

Field lab for health assessments Field lab for health assessments

We saw before us everything from sea lions to fur seals, Inca terns, Peruvian boobies, cormorants and more. Some beaches were home to fur seals; some were full of sea lions; and others had an array of terns swirling up above and Humboldt penguins passing by.

Each morning for six days, we trekked out from the reserve to one of the beaches or nesting areas to perform health assessments on the Humboldt penguins. I mainly helped with record keeping and getting supplies when needed, but I also restrained some penguins when samples were taken and was even able to catch one! While in the lab, I helped restock equipment needed for the next day in the field and was also able to help set up and process blood samples.
I am forever grateful to have been given the opportunity to visit such a unique place that too sadly may not be around for many more generations to come. To get to see a species I work with on a daily basis and hold in such high regard in its natural environment is a gift and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I will not soon forget!

Dr. Deem and Susana Cardenas examine a penguin Dr. Deem and Susana Cardenas examine a penguin