Penguins are, by and large, the stars of any trip to Antarctica. We’ve all seen the National Geographic photos and the Planet Earth footage—but getting up close and personal with penguins in their natural habitat is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Though many penguin species are now being threatened by commercial overfishing of krill, one of their main food sources, they’re still the last guardians of the Antarctic frontier.
Considering a trip to the extreme south? Here are five penguin species to look for.
1. The Gentoo Penguin (Pygocelis papua)
With their striking, vermillion beaks and orange feet, Gentoo penguins bring a bit of much-needed colour to their monochrome Antarctic habitats. Gentoos are also identifiable by the white markings on the tops of their heads, behind their eyes. As the third-largest penguin species, their awkward waddle is something to see. But the moment they slip into the water? Pure poise.
On your expedition, you’re likely to see Gentoo colonies within less than a kilometre of the shoreline. Gentoos prefer to settle in ice-free areas like cliffs, which might explain why their numbers have increased on the Antarctica Peninsula. But, that doesn’t mean the Gentoo population isn’t threatened. Gentoos are reliant on krill as a food source, and overfishing—for omega-3’s and food for fish farms—is decimating the Antarctic krill population.
2. The Chinstrap Penguin (Pygocelis antarctica)
Some would argue that the this medium-sized bird—with its black “hat,” white face, and thin line of dark feathers along its jawline—is the most beautiful of all penguin species.
We’ll let you be the judge. Chinstraps are a common sight on the South Shetland Islands of the Antarctic Peninsula, where they tend to settle in rocky outcrops and slopes. Known for their raucous, aggressive natures and large colonies, watching them nest, fish, and feed is an unexpected treat.
3. The Adélie Penguin (Pygocelis adeliae)
The most southerly of all penguins—and all birds for that matter—black-and-white Adélie penguins have adapted to the most extreme conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula. These sleek, medium-sized penguins live in colonies of up to half a million, and they aren’t known for their cleanliness or their calm. In fact, they may be the messiest, loudest, most aggressive penguin species around.
One thing they’re not? Lazy. Adélies have been known to swim up to 300 kilometres to procure a meal. In the water, they can dive as deep as 175 metres. Adélies are one of the most populous species on the Antarctic continent, and may be seen near the Antarctic Peninsula. That is, if they decide to grace you with their boisterous presence.
4. The King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica)
With their dignified upright stance, dark grey coat, vivid orange beak, and fading yellow throat markings, King penguins are what most people think of when penguins come to mind. As the second-largest species after the Emperor penguin, they’re easy to identify. King penguins can be found on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
King penguins are currently the least threatened Antarctic species—they feed mostly on larger fish and some squid, which are not yet affected by commercial fishing operations.
5. The Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)
The Emperor penguin is the holy grail of Antarctic penguins—seeing one in the wild is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that few people on earth can boast. With colouring and markings only slightly duller than that of the King penguin, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference.
But knowing their distribution around Antarctica is key. While King penguins prefer warmer weather, Emperors stay in the deep south, often huddling shoulder-to-shoulder to protect against the cold. The two species are never found together, and the Emperor’s extreme habitat makes it an elusive sight on any Antarctic expedition.