Dr André Ancel had suspected the existence of an emperor penguin colony near the Mertz Glacier since 1999, when with Dr Barbara Wienecke (Australian Antarctic Division), they observed thousands of emperor penguins going back and forth in the Mertz glacier area. Dr Peter Fretwell and Dr Phil Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey localised this colony in 2009 based on the images from space of emperor penguin nitrogen dejections on the sea ice. However, the break of the Mertz glacier in 2010 questioned the fate of this colony. New satellite images obtained since then suggested that the birds might attempt breeding on different sites. Over the last 13 years all French attempts to find the birds had failed, due to the harsh winter conditions and the summer disappearance of the sea ice where the Emperors breed.
This year, the human, logistic and environmental conditions finally came together. The French Polar Institute (IPEV) then decided to modify the Astrolabe's route to enable Dr André Ancel and Dr Yvon Le Maho to find this population. A good climate window, the excellent knowledge of the environment by the IPEV logistic teams, the expert navigational skill of the Astrolabe crew in the ice and the essential helicopter support in such areas, have allowed for the success of this detection. The break of the Mertz Glacier had profoundly modified the environment into a chaos of small icebergs and sea ice. The French scientists discovered that the initial colony seen from space by their British colleagues had been split over two sites. The first, whose localisation had been recently indicated by the British, accounts for about 2000 chicks, whereas 4000 are being raised in the second. The second site was discovered by chance, 15 km from the first, while conducting a scientific helicopter survey.