In less than three weeks, I will depart for Antarctica, my first stint as an expedition team member with Intrepid Travel and Chimu Adventures. I’m ridiculously excited (more here about joining me down on the White Continent). It will be my fifth Antarctic trip and 14th polar adventure. I guess it’s safe to say I’m hooked, haha.
The history! The adventure! The wildlife! The penguins!
Let’s be honest here: I’m definitely most excited for the penguins of Antarctica. A total bird nerd at heart, I love all of the seabirds in the Antarctic and Subantarctic. The light-mantled sooty albatross is a particular fave. But when push comes to shove, penguins will always win.
Their adorable waddle. Their pettiness when it comes to stealing each other’s nest rocks. The projectile poop. The jaunty eyebrows. The fluffy fat chicks. I mean, is there a more perfect bird?
There’s debate on how many species of penguins are currently alive (between 17 and 20 types). I’m extremely lucky to have met 14 out of 19 species. Living in New Zealand has its perks, especially with all the crested penguins around here.
The big one I’m missing is the emperor. Emperor penguins don’t have colonies where most expedition ships can reach. Sometimes, you see individuals far from home (called vagrants), but I haven’t seen one yet. One day!
Like all bird species, different species of penguins tend to live in certain areas; this means you won’t see every single one on one trip to Antarctica – sorry! The vast majority of expedition ship trips to Antarctica go to the Antarctic Peninsula. If you’re willing to spend more, the next step is usually adding stops to South Georgia and the Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas). South Georgia is my favorite place on THE ENTIRE PLANET. Further still you can hit up the New Zealand subantarctic. I don’t know how you get to the subantarctic islands near the Indian Ocean, but if you know, please email me haha.
Islands that fall within the latitude of 46° and 60° south are considered subantarctic. So, I’m going to include penguins from there, too.
Now that I’m heading back down to the ice, I thought it was high time to put together a blog of some of the penguins you might meet on a trip to Antarctica and the subantarctic.
The gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
The one penguin you are pretty much guaranteed to see again and again in Antarctica has to be the good old reliable gentoo penguin. These cuties are everywhere. In fact, they’re the only species of penguin with an increasing population with a population estimated at around 387,000 pairs. Climate change is actually favorable to them because their habitat expands; they only breed in areas with no snow or ice. Gentoo-fication, if you will.
Gentoos are everywhere in the Antarctic and subantarctic, clocking in at around six kilos with black and white heads and bright orange beaks. Krill, squid, and fish are their go-to staples; they can dive hundreds of times daily, searching for food. They’re also the fastest swimming penguins, reaching up to 36 kph.
You will likely see many colonies of gentoos on a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. January is a good time to see the fluffy chicks; gentoos are one of the few penguins of Antarctica that often have two chicks.
The chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis Antarctica)
I have always felt like chinstrap penguins are a bit of the underdog when it comes to the penguins of Antarctica. I love the chinnies, as I call them; they look dapper with the painted band of black feathers around their heads, almost as if they’re wearing a little tuxedo.
While there are around eight million chinstrap penguins (in 2018), they are in decline, especially around the Antarctic Peninsula.
If you watched the incredible Planet Earth II, you might remember that the largest chinstrap penguin colony in the world is on the volcanic Zavodovski Island (it looked insane here; I can’t even imagine how bad it smells). This is on the remote South Sandwich Islands, due east of South Georgia. Two million chinnies! What a dream it would be to go here one day! I fully recognize that my travel dreams are not like most.
The Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)
I don’t know why, but I really love Adélie penguins. I think it’s because their eyes are freaky-looking. I’ve also not seen as many of them as other penguins, and I’ve never been to a colony of Adélies, even though I know they’re abundant, the most widely distributed penguins with a population of around 10 million. However, I’ve only ever seen one or two at a time on the Antarctic Peninsula, so it felt really special.
Named for the wife of the French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, Adélies have a lot of gumption and can be pretty cheeky, taking on bigger predators. They’re also considered one of the only “true” penguins of Antarctica (along with the emperor) that live on the continent.
Adélies are notorious for another reason. During Robert Falcon Scott’s infamous Terra Nova Expedition, George Murray Levick, a scientist onboard, spent the summer of 1911/1912 at Cape Adare observing the largest Adélie penguin rookery in the world. He witnessed what he described as “sexual depravity” among the Adélies, including necrophilia, rape, and bird murder. It was deemed too indecent to be published and was only rediscovered in 2012. Drama!
The emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
Ah, the biggest and most iconic of penguins and also the hardest (or most expensive) to see in real life, the emperor penguin. One of the few penguins I haven’t seen up close in personal. Yet. Occasionally, emperor penguins will show up in random places at sea; we even had one wash up on the North Island a decade ago, fat and happy. Can you imagine walking your dog on the beach and coming across one of these guys?
Emperor penguins live much farther south than the rest of their relations, making it much harder to get to them. Almost all Antarctic expedition ships go to the Peninsula, but these guys live on the eastern side in the icy Weddell Sea on Snow Hill Island or the Ross Sea.
Very few expedition ships venture into emperor territory and have the highest ice class rating for expedition ships. They also usually bring a long a couple of helicopters. I have yet to hustle my way onboard one of these ships, but rest assured, I will.
Emperors definitely have the cutest chicks of all penguins, and they’re the only penguins that breed during the Antarctic winter. They can also dive deeper than any other bird on Earth, down to 500+ meters.
The king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
When you see photos of those iconic penguins that number in the tens of thousands, usually those are king penguins, with their black heads, white tummies, and a beautiful yellow/orange patch on the neck, king penguins stand tall as the second-largest penguin species. They look very similar to emperor penguins, though they rarely meet, residing on opposite sides of the subantarctic/Antarctic.
King penguins reign supreme on South Georgia, one of the best places in the world to see their enormous colonies.
I can still remember my first visit to St Andrews Bay, home to half a million king penguins. We could hear and smell them long before arriving on shore. This is where you want to go to see them at their best. It was an experience that brought me to my knees (literally, kneeling is the best way to photograph them). I have also seen them on the Falkland Islands and Macquarie Island.
Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome)
If you’re on one of the longer Antarctic expedition trips, you’ll likely call into the Falkland Islands. Here, you’ll have the chance to meet the sprightly little rockhopper penguin. A crested penguin they have jaunty yellow eyebrows and alarmingly red eyes. I have trouble distinguishing crested penguins; they look similar to Macaroni penguins, which you can also see on the Falklands. We also see different subspecies of rockhopper penguins in the New Zealand subantarctic.
The Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)
The other unique penguin you can spot on the Falkland Islands is the Magellanic penguin. White and black, they’re named after famed explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The first time I saw them was on a white sandy beach, which was somewhat disconcerting and not what I expected.
Their population is around three million penguins worldwide.
Snares crested penguin (Eudyptes robustus)
Snares crested penguins live only on the subantarctic Snares Island, 200 kilometers south of New Zealand. The island is so protected that no one can land on it, but some expedition ships can view them by boat. There are about 25,000 breeding pairs.
It was so cool to see them around the Snares from zodiacs. Watching them mingle in the colorful kelp and wandering beneath the native forest was like something from another world.
Yellow-eyed penguin/hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes)
The yellow-eyed penguin is the rarest in the world and can be found here in New Zealand and the subantarctic – Cambell Islands and the Auckland Islands. They’re endangered and declining, with only 4,000 or so left.
I love the hoiho and always feel very privileged to see them in New Zealand, knowing how fragile the population is. But to see them up close and personal on the Auckland Islands amongst the forest and bush was truly special.
Erect-crested penguins (Eudyptes sclateri)
Again, I tend to get pretty much all of the crested penguins confused because they look so similar, but I was lucky enough to see some of the unusual erect-crested penguins on Campbell Island, a New Zealand subantarctic island, a few years ago. They tend to mostly breed on the Antipodes and Bounty Islands.
Nowadays, they’re considered endangered, and we don’t actually have much information on their population, though it’s thought to be around 150,000.
Royal Penguin (Eudyptes schlegeli)
Another crested penguin, the royal penguin does stand out from the others. There’s debate whether they’re a subspecies of macaroni penguins; they have a totally white face and chin and outrageous yellow eyebrows. Royal penguins breed only on Macquarie Island, an Australian subantarctic island.