Long before they captured the hearts of audiences in movies like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, penguins turned Antarctica’s remote, pristine landscapes into teeming wildlife domains.
They number as many as 30 million and are scattered across Antarctica, its surrounding islands, and as far north as the equator. And these diverse areas are home to both common and increasingly scarce penguin populations—each with its own set of quirks and charms.
Similar in look and breeding habits to the slightly larger emperor ones, king penguins stand as high as three feet tall and proliferate the islands surrounding Antarctica. Some colonies live as far north as Australia and New Zealand.
Like emperors, kings incubate their eggs on their feet under a fold of fat, but unlike emperors, king chicks are deep brown. King chicks take an extraordinarily long time to mature, averaging 14-16 months to fledge. As they mature, the chicks grow to be enormous—sometimes almost as large as their parents—while still covered in comical brown fuzz. Congregating year-round in rookeries of more than 100,000 adult pairs, the chicks look like many small bean bags.
Because the chicks take so long to fledge, these friendly and outgoing penguins only mate on alternating years.
This pouty gentoo chick was photographed during one of Quark Expeditions’ popular 11-day Antarctic Explorer expeditions.
Gentoo penguins are closely related to chinstrap penguins, though they’re not nearly as numerous. Gentoo populations have declined by two-thirds over the last 25 years due to climate change and oil spills. Despite their sparse numbers, gentoos are the most widely dispersed, being found across Antarctica, its outlying islands and farther north.
These gregarious penguins are happy to cooperate with one another at sea, forming live “sea rafts” in the hundreds to help one another catch prey. Gentoos are fond of trumpeting; their calls are often compared to the sound of a child’s party horn.
Aptly named after the black stripe under their chins which resembles a bike helmet and strap, chinstrap penguins are one of the most common species. Although barely over half a meter (two feet) high, chinstraps are among the boldest of penguins, preferring icebergs and small, barren islands over more hospitable ground.
Chinstraps can commonly be seen hanging out on icebergs and rocky outcroppings across the sub-Antarctic.
Magellanic penguins (pictured at the top) are native to South America, though their colonies are commonly found in the rocky coastal areas of Argentina and Chile, as well as the Falkland Islands. These unusual penguins are the only species to venture into warm climates, with some colonies migrating as far north as the balmy waters of Rio de Janeiro.
These small, inquisitive penguins can swim as fast as 15 miles (24 kms) per hour. Due to their tendency to migrate to warmer waters, Magellanics shed the extra feathers around their eyes in warm temperatures, then regrow the feathers during colder seasons. In recent years, oil spills along their migration routes have taken a significant toll on their numbers.
Rockhopper penguins are named after the way they hop from rock to rock in their Sub-Antarctic island colonies. Visitors to the Antarctic may catch a lucky glimpse of these comical creatures on remote Saunders Island and the Falkland Islands.
One of the smaller penguin species at not quite half a meter (2 feet) tall, rockhoppers are feisty and sometimes downright aggressive. Their mating routines and calls are particularly gregarious, made especially comical to onlookers by their tufted heads, which give the appearance of angry eyebrows. Rockhopper chicks are equally plucky, taking to the sea at a mere 10 weeks old.
Where to see penguins in Antarctica
Stumbling across penguin colonies, highways, and rookeries is a frequent and pleasant delight along Quark’s many Antarctic expeditions. These independent birds roam the sea, islands and continent across Antarctica and it’s not at all uncommon to come across two, three or even four species at one time. Quark explorers camping overnight on the 7th continent might even have unexpected gentoo guests arrive to share a patch of snow.
To learn more about which of these entertaining, fascinating penguins you might see on your Antarctic cruise, contact a Quark Expeditions experienced Polar Travel Adviser.
This article was supplied by Luxury Latin America partner Quark Expeditions, known for in-depth polar exploration trips with top ships and guides, including in Antarctica trips leaving from South America. See our Quark Expeditions tour story here.