Penguins You Can See in Antarctica

By Expeditions / 05 February 2020

Penguins You Can See in Antarctica

There are 17 species of penguin – however only eight species that most people see in Antarctica and the surrounding islands - at least when departing from South America. What penguins might you see on your expedition cruise to the Antarctic?

Penguins are found only in the Southern Hemisphere (excepting the Galapagos penguin which lives on the Equator and could therefore claim to ‘visit’ the Northern Hemisphere from time to time!) and primarily live in the oceans, only coming ashore to breed along remote costs and islands, or on the ice. The largest species is the Emperor penguin: which grows up to about 1.1 m tall and weighs 35 kg or more. The smallest is the Little penguin (sometimes known as the Blue or Fairy penguin), which stands only around 40 cm tall and weighs about 1 kg. There are 17 species in all – however only eight species of penguins that most people can see in Antarctica and the surrounding islands - at least when departing from South America, which is where most people travel from (we'll save the other nine species for another blog!).  

Penguins in Falkland Islands and South Georgia:

ROCKHOPPER PENGUINS

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Rockhopper Penguins are the smallest of the Crested penguins, standing from 45 to 55cm tall and 3-5kg. They can be distinguished by the shape of their crests; they have a thin yellow stripe that starts just behind the beak and runs toward the back of the head for a few cm. before developing into a large drooping crest. They are extremely good climbers and aptly named because they are known to hop and bound instead of waddle. 

Rockhoppers breed on more or less every sub-Antarctic Island. There are major colonies on the Falklands, Macquarie Island, Marion and Prince Edward Islands and Kerguelen and smaller colonies on Tristan da Cunha, Gough and Amsterdam Islands. The total breeding population is estimated to be 3,700,000 pairs. Nests are usually small scrapes lined with vegetation. Two eggs are usually laid but normally only one chick is reared (from the second egg). Adults share incubation duties for over a month in long shifts of about 10 days. Four weeks after hatching the chicks then form into creches with both parents bringing food. The chicks moult and leave for the sea at the age of about 70 days. Rockhoppers take a mixed diet based mainly (60 to 70%) on krill with various fish and squid making up the remainder.

MAGELLANIC PENGUINS

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Named after Ferdinand Magellan, an explorer who was the first to see them in 1519 while voyaging around the bottom of Chile and Argentina. They can be found also in the Falklands, and on occasion, as high as Brazil. Magellanic penguins have a broad black band under their chin and another that runs in an inverted horseshoe shape around their fronts. The chest is dotted with a few black spots in a random pattern. 

The Magellanic penguins are often called "Jackass penguins" on the Falkland Islands.  This can be confusing as the African penguin is also often called a "Jackass penguin". Magellanic Penguins stand 60 cm tall and weigh from 4 to 6 kg. The total population is estimated to be 400,000 breeding pairs. Nests are built well apart usually under bushes or in burrows. Two eggs are laid and in good years both chicks are reared. Incubation takes about 40 days shared equally between both parents in long shifts. Chicks are brooded and guarded for 29 days after hatching with feeding and guard duties shared between the parents with the chicks being fed every 2 to 3 days. Magellanic penguins eat a mixture of squid and small schooling fish.  

KING PENGUINS

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The second largest penguin species after the emperor penguin, the beautiful King Penguin has a silver and grey body, with a dark black or brown head, with bright gold and orange splashes of feathers near their ears and upper chest. They live between 15 and 20 years. They are quite similar to the Emperor penguin, but the orange extends further on their chests, as well as being a thinner more elegant bird, and having longer beaks. Their location is the biggest difference. Emperors are only found on and around the Antarctic continent, breeding on the ice; whereas Kings are found further north – exclusively in the sub-Antarctic islands – and actually hate ice!  They are large birds: Adult King penguins grow normally 90 cm high, with males weighing in up to 13-16 kg. Chicks can grow even larger than their parents and usually have a downy brown plumage. Early explorers actually thought king penguin chicks were a separate species - the ‘woolly’ penguin!

King penguins breed in large colonies on remote sub-Antarctic islands out in the Southern Ocean, including South Georgia, Heard Island, Falkland Islands, Iles Crozet, Kerguelen Island and Macquarie Island. The total breeding population is estimated to be over 1,000,000 pairs. The King Penguin does not migrate and often reside on valleys, glacial moraines and beaches. The King Penguin also prefers to live in large colonies and to travel in a pack, staying close to one another.

King penguins have a unique breeding cycle. Unlike all other penguins which breed in the summer months, King penguin chicks can be found year-round. This is because it takes a long 14 to 16 months to complete egg laying and chick rearing. So most pairs breed twice during a three year period, anytime from autumn through to spring.  The cycle starts with adults coming ashore to moult and then returning to sea for 20 days to regain body reserves. The females lay a single egg which is incubated on the parents’ feet – similar to Emperors. Both parents share the duties of incubating the egg which hatches after 54 days. The chicks remain with the parents for another month or so until they are large enough to join ‘creches’, then both parents can go to sea to fetch food for the ever-hungry and growing chicks. The fluffy chicks finally moult into their waterproof adult plumage and head out to sea at the age of 10 to 13 months. 

King penguins diet consists almost entirely of fish with only a very few squid and crustaceans being eaten. They often feed by ‘flying’ along the water surface, and then diving in when they see something, using their flippers to help them swim several hundred feet very quickly. Their dives can last over 15 minutes. King penguins have two main predators – leopard seals and killer whales, which often lurk, waiting for them off-shore. As well, other birds such as sheathbills and skuas will prey on their eggs, or young King Penguins when left alone.

Penguins from South Georgia as well as Antarctica:

GENTOO PENGUINS

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Gentoo Penguins may be awkward on land, but underwater they are unrivalled. They can propel themselves at 22 miles an hour, which helps them evade leopard seals, orcas and sea lions. Gentoos are easily recognised by the wide white stripe extending like a bonnet across the top of their heads. Chicks have grey backs with white fronts. Adult Gentoos reach a height of 75 to 90 cm and weigh 5 - 8 kg depending on season. 

Gentoos breed on many sub-Antarctic Islands as well as in Antarctica. The main colonies are on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Islands; smaller populations are found on Macquarie Island, Heard Islands, South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. The total breeding population is estimated to be over 300,000 pairs. Nests are made from stones and can be quite large. Two eggs are laid and both parents share incubation changing duty daily. The chicks moult into sub-adult plumage and go out to sea at about 100 days old. Gentoos live on krill and fish.

MACARONI PENGUINS

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Macaroni penguins could only be confused with Royal penguins (which is found on Australia’s Macquarie Island). Macaroni and Royal are the largest of the crested penguins and both have orange yellow and black crests that join on the top of the head. The Royals however have white chins while Macaroni penguins have black chins.
Macaroni penguins are typically 70 cm tall. Weights vary through the year between 4 and 5.5 kg. Females are usually smaller than males. 
Macaroni penguins breed on sub-Antarctic Islands south of the Americas and Africa. Large populations can be found on South Georgia, Crozet Island, Kerguelen Island, Heard Island and McDonald Island. The total breeding population is estimated to be 12,000,000 pairs

Macaroni penguin nests are rudimentary scrapes in mud or gravel among rocks. Two eggs are laid with only one chick usually being reared. Incubation is shared by both parents in long shifts. Eggs hatch after about five weeks and the male then guards the chicks for 23 to 25 days while the female brings food daily. Chicks then form small creches and are fed every 1 or 2 days until they are ready to leave to go to sea at about two months old. Macaronis live almost entirely on krill supplemented with squid.

Penguins you'll see in Antarctica Only:

ADELIE PENGUINS

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Adelie penguins are probably the most commonly thought of penguin – entirely black and white, with the rather comical appearance of men in dinner suits. Adelie penguins are amazing swimmers. They will sometimes travel 185 miles to find food. These highly athletic penguins will force their chicks to chase them before they feed them. Training starts at a young age!  
They are a small to medium-sized penguin. Adults stand about 70 cm tall and weigh between 4 to 5.5 kg. Their white front and a dark rear is of course for camouflage in the water – seen from below a predator would have a hard time making out the white against the light sky and from above the dark back disappears into the darker depths. Adelie penguins breed on exposed rock all around the Antarctic continent. The total breeding population is estimated to be over 2,500,000 pairs. The largest single colony at Cape Adare in the Ross Sea has an incredible one million pairs at the height of summer!

Adelies are raucous and feisty birds and quite territorial during the breeding season from December to February. They have a distinctive white ring around the eye. Juveniles can be recognised by their white chins. Chicks have uniform grey black plumage. Adelie penguins build rough nests of stones. Nesting Adelie penguins are chronic thieves – the prized rocks used for the nests are frequently stolen and switched between squabbling neighbours! 

There are two eggs which are incubated for a little over one month by both parents. The young chicks remain in the nest for 22 days before joining creches. The chicks moult into their juvenile plumage and go out to sea after 50 to 60 days.  Adelies live almost exclusively on krill – one of the keys of the Southern Ocean food chain - which makes up over 99% of their diet.

CHINSTRAP PENGUIN

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Chinstrap penguins are very easily distinguished by the thin black stripe across the bottom of the throat - the infamous chinstrap. Chinstrap penguins are sometimes known as "Stonecracker Penguins", a name that derives from their shrill, raucous call. Other names are "Ringed penguin" and "Bearded penguin". Adults are 70 to 75 cm tall and weigh between 3.5 to 5 kg. Chinstraps breed on some sub-Antarctic islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula. Chinstraps breed in extremely large colonies. One colony on the South Sandwich Islands is reputed to contain over 10,000,000 birds! The total breeding population is estimated to be 7,500,000 pairs. Chinstrap penguins build roughly circular nests of stones; the nests are typically 40 cm in diameter and up to 15 cm high in the centre. There are usually two eggs and both parents take care of the eggs and chicks, which moult and go to sea at about 60 days of age. Chinstraps feed mostly on krill, with some fish.

EMPEROR PENGUIN

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Emperor penguins are the largest of all the penguins, over a meter tall and weigh 30 to 40 kg and can live to be 20 years of age. Emperors are only very rarely sighted on most Antarctica cruises as they can only be found in very inaccessible places and only early in the summer. They breed at the beginning of winter until the spring, on the fast ice all around the Antarctic continent. There are occasional voyages to Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea in October or November where you can see emperors in their colonies on the ice. At other times, most voyages may only see an occasional solitary emperor resting on an ice floe or ashore. 

Emperors survive in the coldest climate on earth for any animal. Because they are so large, they have evolved the most amazing breeding cycle, right through the winter in order to give the chick enough time to get big enough to survive the following winter. Temperatures can drop as low as 60 degrees Celsius. The female lays one large egg which is immediately given over to the male and then incubated and kept warm on the male's feet by a thick fold of skin that hangs from the belly. The males manage to survive over two months without food by standing huddled in groups to keep warm. During this time the female returns to the open sea to feed. During the time the male incubates the egg, he may lose about half his body weight.

When the egg hatches the female returns to care for the chick. Once the female returns, the male will go to the open sea (a journey that is often many miles over the ice) to feed. From then both male and female will tend to the chick by keeping it warm and feeding it food from their stomachs. The chicks are fully grown in 6 months, which is the beginning of the summer season in the Antarctic. At this time all the penguins return to the open sea. The total population is estimated to be about 200,000 breeding pairs. 

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