Emperor penguins breed and nest on the sea ice in extremely cold environments, such
as the remote, ice-covered Snow Hill Island in the Antarctic. Photo: Dave Merron
Penguins! Few winged species are as captivating as the cute, wobbly-on-land, graceful-in-water, torpedo-shaped, tuxedo-wearing flightless birds that lure travelers to the Antarctic.
The sometimes curious lifestyle habits of penguins and their physiological traits baffle and bemuse nature lovers. While penguins have wings, they are essentially flightless. Their wings function more like flippers. However, penguins are accomplished swimmers and can dive 20 metres deep down in the water as they look for food. Some penguins have been observed at 30 metres below water due to their ability to hold their breath for 2 to 3 minutes when submerged. Emperor penguins, the tallest of the species, can hold its breath underwater for as long as 20 minutes.
A penguin's “tuxedo” is the species' way of adapting to survival in the ocean. Their unique black-and-white outer appearance (some have various splashes of bright colors) provides camouflage in the water. From above, a penguin's black back blends in with the dark ocean water (protection from overhead predators) while from below, their white bellies are similar to the sunlit surface of the oceans—providing protection from preying leopard seals.
What kind of penguins live in Antarctica?
In some penguin species, such as the Emperor penguin, the male and female share child-rearing
and nesting duties. Photo: David Merron
Most scientists agree there are 17 species of penguins in the southern hemisphere. The eight most commonly-seen penguins in Antarctica include the Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo, King, Macaroni, Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins.
As I previously wrote in my blog “Antarctic Curiosity: How do penguins get their names,” each penguin species can be recognized by its distinctive traits. The Macaroni is often viewed as an incorrigible attention-seeker as it likes to preen and “perform” for visitors, showing off its costume: a reddish-orange bill, black face and chin, and feathered crown of not-so-subtle yellow and orange.
Another frequently-sighted penguin in Antarctica is the tuxedo-wearing Adélie (black back and head in contrast to its white chest and belly) with white-ringed eyes. The Adélie, while the smallest of the species, is anything but demure—it's been known to attack researchers!
Visitors to Antarctica are often surprised to see penguins that stand four feet tall and weigh as much as 100 pounds. As Nadine Ponte shares in her blog "Meet the Giants of the Penguin Species," it's not just size and stature that make Emperor penguins surpass other members of its species. They're the only penguins that breed and give birth on the sea ice. Another trait that sets them apart: as befits their name “Emperor,” they also sport a regal yellow-and-orange plumage on their head!
One of my favorite penguins, and reportedly the smallest in Antarctica, is the Rockhopper. According to National Geographic, fully-grown Rockhoppers tend to be about 20 to 22 inches in height, clocking in as little as 4.4 to 6.6 pounds (approximately 2 to 3 pounds). They sport what's best described as an “irreverent crest” of spiky yellow and black feathers on their head. Unlike the rest of the penguin species who waddle, the Rockhoppers tend to bound along the shorelines.
For a quick snapshot of penguins' distinguishing features, check out this infographic of the most common penguin species in the Antarctic.
How to see penguins in Antarctica in a way that's safe and eco-friendly
Penguins live in colonies called "rookeries." They're the most social of all birds. Photo: Sam Crimmin
The safest and most environmentally-responsible way to see penguins in Antarctica is to join a polar expedition with knowledgeable polar experts onboard who follow strict wildlife-viewing guidelines. Quark Expeditions, which has been exploring the Polar Regions for three decades—longer than any other operator—includes penguinologists, biologists, glaciologists and other polar experts in their expedition teams. Quark Expeditions strictly adheres to the guidelines set out by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IATTO) which oversees polar expeditions to the Antarctic Experienced guides also know where (and when) to bring guests ashore in Zodiacs for the best penguin-viewing opportunities—which is infinitely better than viewing penguins from the deck of the ship.
Quark Expeditions is a longstanding supporter of Penguin Watch, whose staff, such as Dr. Tom Hart, frequently join our expeditions. It's this kind of expertise that's vital when exploring how to see penguins in Antarctica.
For a photographer's tips on how to see penguins in Antarctica—and capture great pictures of them—check out award-winning photographer Acacia Johnson's blog post “Why I Love Traveling to the Falkland Islands as a Landscape and Wildlife Photographer."
Best Time to See Penguins in Antarctica
The best time to visit Antarctica is from October to March, which, coincides with late spring and early fall in the southern hemisphere.
From November to December, Antarctica awakens after the long harsh winter. This is when pack ice starts to melt and icebergs are usually at their biggest. Because the days are getting longer there's more light to view the snow-covered landscapes. This period is an excellent time to witness penguins (and other birds) as they court and lay their eggs.
From December to February, penguin chicks are hatching as the retreating snow exposes rocky headlands. Daylight last up to 20 hours which means icebergs are melting and you'll get to witness glaciers calving. The crashing sounds of huge ice chunks falling off a glacier into the ocean waters is dramatic. This December-to-February period is also ideal for whale-watching. Polar visitors can also watch seal pups taking their first steps on the ice.
It's also common in February to see penguin chicks taking their first tentative steps outside the nest in the Antarctic Peninsula and the South Georgia Islands. In March, fast-growing penguins are leaving the nest and learning to swim—which is sometimes hilarious to watch as you'll see in this video “Penguin Shenanigans.”
To determine how to see penguins in Antarctica—as well as other wildlife species—during the one polar voyage, consider one of Quark Expeditions' curated trips which offers a variety of wildlife-viewing opportunities. The South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari voyage operates November to February and is the fastest way to get to the seldom-visited South Georgia Island while also setting foot on the 7th Continent. Another voyage to consider is Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings, which includes an opportunity in South Georgia to visit the beaches where King penguins breed.
For more information on how to see penguins in Antarctica, watch our Polar Learning Channel webinar, “Penguins: Happiest Feet in the Antarctic.”