From a distance, the adelie penguin colony at Cape Bird is a sight to behold. Tens of thousands of charismatic little birds waddle about the slopes that lead down to a vast blue sea. Sometimes they slide on their belly on the snow. At the end of the beach is a glacier which descends majestically into the ocean. And offshore, there's an island, and icebergs floating past. The vista is nothing short of gorgeous.
It's not a place for the squeamish though. Firstly there's the stench of centuries of bird poo. The guano lies in mounds on the gravelly beach, the layer rising incrementally each year.
But, even more visceral than Cape Bird's pungent odour is the savagery. The penguin nests are constantly under attack from skuas - large brown seabirds. They'll pick off the chicks, drag them away and peck them to death. After ripping out the stomach and devouring the contents, the predatory birds will move on to another victim. The killing has left the beach strewn with penguin carcasses. Some are whole, but there are also heads and legs and flippers and other parts. The cold, dry climate and dearth of microorganisms prevents the parts from breaking down quickly so the graveyard steadily accumulates.
Adult adelie penguins will protect their offspring but won't usually defend another bird's chicks, meaning the young are often killed as a nest of adult penguins watch on. And, if non-related adults do choose to intervene, they will then sometimes take the chick away and do indecent things to it.
Looking to the ocean for relief from the barbarism offers little respite. There, the adult penguins are relatively safe, although the occasional marauding sea leopard is liable to pick the odd one off. Other adelies die from internal injuries after being smashed between the car-sized icebergs which jostle in the surf on the shoreline.
During our stay a nest of chicks was decimated as skua after skua looked for a feed. The birds would divide the pack in two, splitting off weak and unprotected birds from the group. The hostile birds also fly at humans who wander into their territory, sometimes battering their unlucky victim about the head with their wings.
To watch the adelies and skuas is to get an illuminating lesson in life. While every death results in the whimpering end to an adelie chick, it also means a skua chick, nesting in the rocks nearby, gets fed. It's the food chain, operating as it should, albeit in an uncomfortably visible way.