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March of the Penguins (10/10)

by Tony Medley

I’ve always felt that the purpose of life is procreation, not becoming President or a Supreme Court Justice or writing the great American novel or making lots and lots of money. We’re here to reproduce and prepare our children for their lives. Material success takes a distant second. People, especially women, who voluntarily (and I stress that, I’m not referring to single moms who have to struggle to raise children and support them at the same time) farm their children out to surrogates to raise while they practice law or medicine or act as corporate executives or whatever, are missing the essence of life.

This film shows that emperor penguins, at least, understand what their life is all about. What they go through to mate and raise their young is mind-boggling and all-encompassing.

For the first four years of their lives, emperor penguins frolic in the ocean living a happy life. Then, at the four year mark, they go back to the land where they were born, Antarctica, the most desolate land on earth, and trek 70 miles through brutal country, to breed. Once they have arrived at the breeding land, they search for a mate. Once found, they are monogamous for that breeding season. They mate and have an egg. The egg is transferred from female to male without allowing the egg to touch the ice, which will kill whatever is inside. The female then returns to the sea while the male holds the egg safe on his feet for two months. The scene of thousands of male penguins huddling together against the cold, protecting their eggs is one you won’t soon forget. Meanwhile the females have gotten to the ocean and replenished their bodies with food, because all the time at the breeding ground they do not eat. While they are gone the egg has hatched. When they return, they give nourishment to their chicks while the males trudge the 70 miles off to the ocean for sustenance. By the time they reach the ocean they’ve lost ¼ to 1/3 of their original body weight. Then they return and replace the females, who go to the sea. And back and forth.

This is an amazing story. It’s been going on for thousands of years, every year. This is the first time it has ever been filmed. There’s more to it than what I’ve just written, but these are the basics.

Director Luc Jacquet and his crew had to travel to Antarctica and live with the penguins for 13 months, totally incommunicado with the rest of the world and the results are these stunning pictures. There are only around 40 emperor colonies worldwide and only one accessible without mounting an independent expedition, the Geological Headland Archipelago colony in Adelie, a few hundred meters from the French scientific center of Dumont d’Urville, which provided Jacquet’s base.

The crew had to live in the cold with temperatures -55°F and below with 100 mph winds. They had to be careful not to disturb the colony because even a small disturbance can result in 80% of the eggs being lost. The crew captured the complete scene of a pair of penguins as they laboriously transfer the egg from the female to the male, never letting it hit the ice, using only their feet. These scenes are mind-boggling, and only represent a small portion of the unforgettable things captured on film from the beginning of their trek to the end. The result is a film of something never before seen, and not soon forgotten.