Penguins are some of the most instantly recognisable, characterful and oddly endearing birds. We are used to seeing them on TV as stars of nature programmes, but to be with them in their extreme natural environment is a special and compelling experience.

Nine species of penguin are regularly seen in this part of the world:

  • In and around the Antarctica Peninsula and the South Shetlands you should look for Emperor and King penguins, plus Chinstrap, Adelie, Gentoo and Macaroni penguins
  • On the Falkland Islands there are King, Magellanic, Gentoo, Macaroni and Southern Rockhopper penguins.
  • South Georgia has breeding colonies of King, Chinstrap, Gentoo and Macaroni penguins.
  • If you are visiting Southern Chile or Southern Argentina you could seek out King, Southern Rockhopper, Macaroni and Magellanic (and Humboldt penguins further up the coast of Chile).

For the technically-minded, the first recognisable penguins appeared sometime in the Cretaceous period in what would become New Zealand. They eventually evolved into 17 species and spread over the oceans of the southern hemisphere, from the equator to Antarctica. (There are only small numbers in the northern hemisphere.) The 9 species found in Antarctica, the South Atlantic and Southern Patagonia span 4 genuses:

  • Emperors and Kings are the only two species in the genus of 'great penguins'
  • Adelies, Chinstraps and Gentoos are the only 'brush-tailed penguins'
  • Magellanic and Humboldt penguins (and the Galapagos penguin which lives at the equator) are all 'banded penguins'
  • Macaroni and Southern Rockhopper penguins are 'crested penguins'

Emperor penguins

Emperor penguins are the largest, reaching 140cm in height and weighing up to 40kg. The 'March of the Penguins' documentary has made them into household names.

Emperors breed only in Antarctica, and they are the only penguins that breed in winter. They settle in at the end of the Antarctic summer - either on permanent ice or on land by the coast, but within easy reach of open water. As winter sets in and the ice spreads their breeding grounds become further and further from the sea. The scene is set for the 'march'.

A single egg is laid and tended first by the female. The male has been at sea feeding and fattening himself up, and then as the winter takes hold he walks the many miles inland to the breeding grounds to take over the incubation. After a lengthy dialogue to assure his partner he can be trusted, the egg is carefully and quickly transferred to sit on top of his feet under his thick layer of feathers.

The females march off to the sea for their first meal in two months, while the males huddle together without food and with only snow for water against 90mph winds and temperatures that can plunge to minus 60C. It has been said that 'nobody on Earth has a worse time than an emperor penguin'.

Eventually the chick hatches and is fed by the male until the return of the female after an absence of two months. Now it is his turn to march across the ice to the sea. At the height of winter the birds can walk up to 70 miles each way. The chick is not strong enough to make its own journey to the sea until December when the summer is well underway.

Emperors are ungainly on land but consummate hunters when they do reach the ocean. They can dive to 500 metres, put on bursts of speed up to 12mph, and stay under for 20 minutes catching fish and eating krill. Like all penguins they have more feathers per square inch than any other bird, and build up a thick layer of blubber, together giving excellent insulation.

Emperor colonies ebb and flow with the seasons and from year to year, and the number of places to see them is quite small. Great care is demanded to avoid disturbing them, keeping a distance away and not staying long. They are known to be affected by surprise activity such as the helicopter overflights which are offered by one or two cruise companies: do not opt for these.

Total numbers have been decreasing, to about 600,000 individuals at the last estimate, and so they have been uplisted from 'least concern' to 'near-threatened'. They are assessed as being particularly vulnerable to climate change.

King penguins

Rather smaller than their Emperor cousins (at 70-100cm tall and 9-18kg) King penguins are much more sensible. They steer clear of winters on the Antarctic continent and instead colonise the milder sub-Antarctic islands around the southern ocean: South Georgia, South Orkneys and South Shetlands. There are some colonies on the Falklands, and even a small colony on Tierra del Fuego in range of a long day trip from Punta Arenas (ask us for details).

King penguins breed in the summer months, typically between December and February, in noisy colonies with lots of action, sky-pointing, and general kerfuffle. Some colonies become spectacularly large, notably on Salisbury Plain in South Georgia. Chick growth is put on hold over the winter months so they can take almost a year to fledge and become independent. As a result, breeding colonies are continuously occupied, with many families at different stages of the breeding cycle.

King penguin populations have been on the rise, with 2.3m the current world figure. In the nineteenth century they were heavily hunted for their oil, but populations have recovered. They are thought to have benefitted to some degree from declining whale numbers.

Gentoo penguins

One step down in size from Kings, Gentoo penguins are sturdy stocky beasts (80cm, 5kg) that are widespread in the islands of the south Atlantic, from the Falklands to the South Shetlands, and on the northern Antarctic peninsula. A bold white mark over their eyes and across their head like a bonnet makes them easy to identify.

Gentoos are highly gregarious and form lots of small colonies, with only a few that number thousands. The season for breeding varies widely depending on latitude, with the first batch of eggs laid in June in northernmost colonies, but not until December in the deep south. Chicks are gathered together in heart-warming creches as soon as they can stand, and set on their way at 3 months.

Gentoos feed mostly on krill, with fish accounting for less than a fifth of their diet. They are excellent swimmers, of course, but in the water their predators are sea lions, leopard seals and killer whales. They do not generally stray far from land, and shooting back to the beach is one way they can escape a hungry marine mammal. Those heart-stopping Attenborough scenes of a sea lion penguin hunt continuing in the surf and on to the beach featured Gentoos incompetently escaping the jaws of their even more incompetent hunters.

Numbers overall are around 320,000, and Gentoos are rated 'least concern'.

Adelie penguins

Strikingly sleek penguins with black faces, bold white eyes, pitch-black backs, and neat brush tails, Adelies are the cat-walk models of the penguin world - or as close as a penguin can get.

Gregarious, noisy and numerous (there are about 5 million of them), Adelies are found in large numbers around the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetlands and South Orkneys.

They feed on krill, mostly close to the surface, and breed as quickly as possible as soon as the Antarctic summer arrives - when their established breeding colonies can still be tens of kilometres from the edge of the melting sea ice.

Chinstrap penguins

Chinstraps are about the same size as Adelies, but easily distinguished by the thin black line around their chin defining a pure white triangle that extends over their face and eyes.

In this region Chinstraps are found on the north of the Antarctica Peninsula and on the South Shetlands and South Orkneys. There are about 6,000 pairs on South Georgia, and only vagrants on the Falklands.

Chinstraps are gregarious and noisy, and even more numerous than Adelies - 15m is the estimated population. Like Adelies they return to breed in established colonies, but start the process later in the season, typically from November to March. Males return early, to bag the best position for the nest before the females arrive. If his partner doesn't show up on time, an alternative mate may be recruited - which can lead to dreadful marital problems if she does eventually appear.

Chinstraps swim long distances to feed, up to 80km from the shore. They swim close to the surface, which makes them a ready target for leopard seals.

On land, Chinstraps have a fetching ability to toboggan on their bellies - a much more rapid way to cover the ground than waddling.

Macaroni penguins

Billed as the world's most abundant penguin, the stylishly-crested Macaroni numbers upwards of 11m. They are distinguished from the other crested penguins by crests that meet on their forehead without a gap, and black faces rather than white - but at a casual glance there are opportunities for confusion with some others and apparent hybrids.

Macaronis range from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to Tierra del Fuego, including the main islands of the South Atlantic, including 1m pairs on South Georgia. Colonies are large, noisy and densely populated, with lots of head swinging and flipper shaking.

Their main diet is krill, plus some small fish. When not breeding they hunt at considerable distances from the shore and can dive quite deep - down to 100m or more.

Although their numbers are large, populations are declining quite rapidly and the Macaroni is classed as 'vulnerable'. Commercial fishing, harvesting of krill and ocean warming are cited as threats, along with predation from recovering populations of seals.

Southern Rockhopper penguins

There are two Rockhoppers, the Southern Rockhopper (sometimes just called the Rockhopper) which is found in this region and the Northern Rockhopper which is found around Tristan da Cunha.

Rockhoppers are small, dumpy, lively, slaty-grey penguins with a certain appealing charisma. Southern Rockhoppers have short yellowish crests that do not meet on the forehead.

Rockhoppers are largely krill feeders, also taking some small fish and squid. Breeding colonies are the usual noisy gregarious affairs typical of the smaller penguins.

Rockhoppers are not found on the more southerly islands or the Antarctica Peninsula.

They inhabit more northerly latitudes, notably on the Falklands where they are particularly numerous with at least 35 colonies and a third of the entire world's population.

They are also found on offshore islands around the coasts of Patagonia, which are visited by some of the Patagonia expedition cruises. There is a colony accessible from the mainland of Argentina from Puerto Deseado.

Their conservation status is 'vulnerable', with an estimated 25-35% decline to the present 2.5 million birds. The causes of this decline are highly unclear, with ocean temperatures, commercial fishing, disease and pollution in their winter foraging areas off the mid-Argentine coast currently being investigated.

Start planning your trip to Antarctica

Let us know what kind of boat and voyage you are most interested in, and when you are thinking of travelling. We'll get back to you with some initial ideas and advice.

Call us on 020 7281 7788 ( Mon-Fri 9:15-5:45). Or we'd be happy to call you back.

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