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The Emperor and the General – The story of a Penguin’s Progress

How else could one start the improbable tale of the Emperor and the General but by misquoting the gallant Captain Oates – “I am just coming from the Antarctic and I may be some time”? But the story of the Emperor Penguin and its travels was just that. At the time it seemed such a simple little thing to want. We were just putting the finishing touches to a superb new display to the Antarctic explorer, Captain Lawrence Oates, the gallant hero of the Scott 1911 Polar Expedition. A wonderful new gallery, rich in historical artefacts from the expedition, had now taken shape. It just needed one finishing touch.

As well as re-telling the exciting but ultimately tragic story of Scott, Oates and their colleagues, the display celebrates the important role that Scott’s expedition played in laying the foundations of Antarctic science, now crucial to the understanding of climate change. Over the years the Museum (Gilbert White and The Oates Collections in Selborne, Hants.) had acquired a magnificent collection of all the various penguins which make their homes in Antarctica. We were missing just one.

“What we need is an Emperor” the General exclaimed “It would be the icing on the cake”. The General – Maj Gen Patrick Cordingley, the world’s leading Oates expert and Honorary Colonel of Oates’ regiment – had been the moving spirit behind the decision by the Museum to rebuild completely our Oates exhibition which reopened on the 100th anniversary of his death. We agreed; we needed an Emperor (Penguin, that is). 6 months, and a journey of 9,788 miles later, we had one.

Our wish was easier said than done – unless you happen to have some rather unusual friends. And we have. For over 30 years the British Antarctic Survey, based in Cambridge, and of course the Antarctic, has been a staunch supporter of the Museum, helping us with advice and exhibits. An e-mail was sent to Professor Paul Rodhouse, a senior board member at BAS, a biological oceanographer by trade – and a very good friend of the Museum. As he noted in reply “To my certain knowledge there are two Emperors in the UK.  A scruffy and thoroughly disreputable fellow in the Natural History Museum and the BAS chap who is well past his prime”. A new one would be a coup for the Museum.

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Victorian Emperor Penguins in Natural History Museum, Tring

In the bad old days, someone would have just popped out of their shed in Antarctica, crept up behind an Emperor and bashed it on the head. You can’t, and certainly don’t want, to do that nowadays. The Antarctic rule is that man must minimise his impact on Antarctica (and leave no rubbish behind). Paul warned us that we might have to wait some time. In August 2012 he e-mailed me “The sun will have appeared over the horizon on Saturday at the BAS Halley Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf.  Keen for someone else to look at, other than each other, the inhabitants (of the Halley Research Station) will be setting off soon to visit the emperor penguin colony on the sea ice about 10 km from the base. 

Although we wish the penguins no harm, with any luck they will find a dead adult in good condition.  Indeed a competition is already in hand to identify the person who can collect the best corpse.  They are of course aided by the winter air temperatures which flash freeze any penguin that keels over.” 

The British Antarctic Survey is an extraordinary body. If there is one part of the world over which the British flag still flutters proudly, it is Antarctica. And BAS is the guardian of that. In 1943, during World War II, the UK undertook a military operation to provide reconnaissance and meteorological information in the South Atlantic. This wartime project eventually became BAS, which is responsible for the United Kingdom’s scientific research presence in Antarctica.

But BAS is much more than that. Although some 49 nations around the world have expressed an interest in Antarctica and attend the AGM of the Antarctic Treaty, in practice Britain leads on many Antarctic issues, such as conservation and scientific research. Paul Rodhouse, for example, regales audiences with stories of the highly effective management of the South Georgia fishery – one of the most sustainable and best managed fisheries anywhere in the world. Not long ago an offending vessel was confiscated by the authorities, made environmentally safe by removing fuel oil etc, and sunk by Royal Engineers in deep water off the Falkland Islands. What you might call the effective exercise of soft power.

We were expecting a long wait, but in late September the BAS Halley Base Commander in Antarctica reported that the base doctor – Dr Caria (Cas) Findlater – had found a dead male Emperor at Windy Bay 15 km from the base. Having frozen in situ it was swiftly moved to the Base and stored in a snow hole to await the arrival of RRS Ernest Shackleton, supply ship to the Halley Base making its first trip of the Antarctic season to the Base.

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Emperor Penguins at Windy Bay, Antarctica

For those unfamiliar with Antarctica, Halley earned its place in the scientific history books in 1985 when measurements made at the base first detected the now famous hole in the world’s ozone layer. During the Antarctic winter (our summer) a dozen or so staff – including a doctor, a mechanic and a plumber – keep the base going. It is a lonely existence in continuous darkness. But on the first day the sun makes it above the horizon (the official beginning of summer) it is traditional for the “winterers” to streak round the building they have been cooped up in all winter. They are allowed to wear hats, gloves and boots! That aside, the high point is the arrival of the relief ship, once the sea ice breaks up, bearing supplies and summer staff. During the Antarctic summer, Halley’s population rises to around 70 people.

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Tossing the caber in “Halley Highland Games” 28 Jan 2012

On the last day of 2012, we received the good news from Caroline Lewis, Base Coordinator at Halley “Good afternoon All, The penguin was duly packed at Halley and despatched to Falkland Islands on RRS Ernest Shackleton on 31 Dec 12”. The next stage in the penguin’s epic journey had an almost Gilbert and Sullivan quality to it. Penguins don’t just travel, they need passports, just like you and me. Mike Dunn, a BAS scientist (with the marvellous title of “Higher Predator Ecologist”) had agreed to arrange the paperwork for an import licence for scientific specimens. On 27 June 2013 a magnificent document arrived – “a license to transport one penguin and chick (aptenodytes forsteri) to Selborne” under the Importation of Animal Pathogens Order 1980 issued by DEFRA. Marvellously this document insisted that the penguins be packaged “so that they fully comply with the requirements of the Post Office or IATA regulations.” An interesting packaging challenge.

On arrival in Port Stanley on 28 January 2013, the penguin was transferred to the Falklands Islands Museum (still frozen) to await the attention of Steve Massam, the islands’ taxidermist. Steve – known to his fans as “Steve the Stuffer” – has been on the Islands since 2001. He has been fascinated by the structure of animals all his life, and in the 1970’s started his career – suitably – as a butcher’s apprentice. He became a member of the Guild of Taxidermists and applied for a six week temporary contract in the Falklands in 2001. The abundance of wildlife in the Falklands ensured that he stayed.

The first job was to thaw the Emperor out. “I know a King Penguin takes at least four days to thaw, so I’m anticipating an Emperor would take about a week. You may think that one penguin is very much like another but never having prepared an Emperor Penguin before I feel I should leave myself additional time just in case.”

Meanwhile we had another challenge. As a small independent Museum, we simply didn’t have the funds needed to stuff an Emperor penguin. But a little thought and a good contacts book go a long way. Quentin Wallop, 10th Earl of Portsmouth, and his wife Annabel who live not far from Selborne, are Antarctic enthusiasts and had already lent the Museum a copy of Oates’ Prayer Book (which went to the Pole and back with him.) They kindly agreed to support the cost of Steve Massam’s work.

The stuffing process had its own unusual challenges. As Steve reported: “talk about the old saying; “wait hours for a bus and then three come along at once” On the day the Emperor arrived, I had a phone call from the local vets department asking me if the museum would be interested in a King Penguin they have just had to put down with a broken leg, and blow me, in the afternoon I had yet another phone call this time from the fisheries department asking if the museum would be interested in six Gentoo Penguins they have in their freezer. (I need a bigger freezer!!)” Steve was able to make a bit more space by adding an Emperor chick from his freezer to our collection.

Find out more about Steve here:


51º South: Steve the Stuffer from 51° South on Vimeo.

The most demanding challenge in the Penguin’s Progress to Selborne now arrived. Because of the pressure of work and the complex demands of the project, Steve was unable to finish it before the BAS ship – on which it was supposed to travel to the UK – left the Falklands in April 2013. We would have to find another means of getting it to the UK, or wait a year for the next BAS ship.

The contacts book came out again. I had recently received an e-mail telling me that Stephen Jolly, an old friend who had been Director of Communications at Cambridge University, had just been appointed Director of Media and Communications at the Ministry of Defence. Remembering that there is a military garrison there, with an air link to the UK, I sent him an e-mail asking if he could help. Within a few hours I had a call back from one of Stephen’s staff promising just that. The only problem was the military might have to charge for air freight, as the service was run by a commercial operator.

At this stage, fate intervened – bizarrely but brilliantly. I had been talking about the transport problem to friends in the village pub. One of them, Alwin Hutchinson, a former Army Brigadier, told me that a friend of his in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (from his time in the OSCE Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, based in Vienna,) was now Governor of the Falklands.

Within 24 hours the Governor, Nigel Haywood, had volunteered to bring our penguin back from the Falklands on his next trip home in July as part of his baggage. He even offered to escort it to Selborne, but I declined his offer as I now had the paperwork which had to be shown at RAF Brize Norton to ensure the penguin’s entry into Britain.

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An Emperor’s Arrival – RAF Brize Norton

The Governor’s offer was a hugely generous one, given that the penguin’s box weighed about 40 kilos, (“probably not carry-on baggage” as the Director of the Falklands Museum tactfully put it). By the beginning of July, the penguin was on its way, with the Governor, by overnight flight to Brize Norton. The pace of progress had been so fast, that I was caught out. I was on holiday in France when it arrived. Mercifully the Officer Commanding Cargo at Brize Norton, Fl Lt Ade Eldridge, kindly agreed to put it into storage to await my return.

On 15July I arrived, complete with trailer, at the gates of Brize Norton. I was delighted to be able to tell the somewhat dour MOD security officer at the main gate that I was there to “p….p….p….pick up a Penguin”. He looked at me with astonishment, then rang the freight office. Within a few minutes, with the help of enthusiastic RAF ground crew, I had the penguin safely stowed on the trailer, and set off for Selborne.

It is the only time as a driver that I have ever wanted to be stopped by the police. Asked “Could you tell me what you have in your trailer sir?” it would have been wonderful to have been able to say “Oh it’s just a penguin from Antarctica” and watched the reaction.

Over the last six months our penguin had travelled 9,788 miles from Halley Research Station to Selborne, with a lot of help from some rather unusual friends en route.

I somehow felt as if I had taken the trip too.

Philip Geddes, Trustee

Gilbert White & The Oates Collections

21 February 2014