Cool fact #1:
The black and white feathers serve to protect penguins by misleading predators. From the air, birds have a hard time distinguishing penguins against the darkness of the sea. From the ocean depths, the white penguin bellies look like the sun reflecting off the surface of the water.
Keep reading to find out more cool facts about the penguins of Antarctica and where to see them.
Penguin species from the Falklands to Antarctica
Despite common belief, of the 18 penguin species on the planet, only eight can be found in Antarctica and its nearby islands. Starting in the northern latitudes along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of South America and reaching the sub-Antarctic islands, we find the first three of these species: Magellanic, king, and southern rockhopper penguins. Continuing our way south, we encounter the following trio, made up of the macaroni, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins. They inhabit both northern Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic archipelagos of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Upon reaching our final destination, we meet the remaining two species – Adélie and emperor penguins – which can only be found on the white continent.
You can observe penguin colonies up close when embarking on any of the Antarctica cruise options, which sail from either Punta Arenas, Chile or Ushuaia, Argentina, from November to March, which are the local spring-summer months. This is the time of year when you will enjoy the longest daylight in the Antarctic continent and will have amazing opportunities to see baby penguins at some of the most popular visitor sites.
Cool fact #2
Penguins in Antarctica have no land-based predators. Because Antarctica is the driest, coldest, and windiest place on Earth, wildlife is only found on the coast or in the surrounding oceans. So, aquatic birds and sea mammals are the only predators.
Cool fact #3
Magellanic penguins migrate north during the local wintertime – June to September – in search of warmer climates. They can cover up to 4,000 miles in this migration, reaching as far as Peru and Brazil on each ocean.
These penguins were first recorded by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan during his expedition to circumnavigate the world in 1520. They are all black and white, except for a small spot of pink flesh between their eyes. They have black backs and white bellies, as well as two black bands between the head and the breast. Their average life span in the wild ranges from 10 to 20 years, they grow 24 to 30 inches tall, and can weigh 8 to 14 pounds.
Magellanic penguins are the only ones that nest in burrows, which protect them from aerial predators. They mate for life and each breeding season they return to the same nesting site from which they hatched. Male penguins arrive first to select the nest, while female penguins get there later and lay an average of two eggs that hatch after five to six weeks. They raise their chicks together until they are old enough to swim and hunt on their own.
Cool fact #4
Although they avoid ice and snow, king penguins are experts in using their bellies to slide when they can’t or don’t want to waddle.
This is the second largest penguin species on Earth. Adults have a black head, chin, and throat, with orange teardrop-shaped patches on each side of the head and yellow-orange feathers on its upper chest. They have four layers of feathers to keep themselves warm. Their average life span in the wild is 26 years, they grow 31 to 35 inches tall, and can weigh 30 to 45 pounds.
King penguins have the longest breeding cycle of all the penguin species, between 14 to 16 months, but they don’t build nests. Females lay one egg per year and the couple takes turns incubating it under a loose fold of belly skin called a brood patch. However, chicks only hatch every other year. They breed in large colonies in shores free of snow and ice.
Where to see them: Tierra del Fuego and the sub-antarctic islands, particularly the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, which harbors the largest colony on St. Andrews Bay.
Cool fact #5
Southern rockhopper penguins are jittery and defensive. They show little fear of humans or natural predators such as birds and sea lions and will peck anything that comes too close to their nests.
Southern rockhopper penguin
This is the smallest penguin species of Antarctica. Their eyes are red, and they have a thin yellow stripe above them. On top of their heads, they have a crest of spiky black feathers. Their average life span in the wild is 10 years, they grow approximately 26 inches tall, and can weigh 4.4 to 6.6 pounds.
Southern rockhopper penguins breed in rocky terrains, sometimes covered with tussock grass, and they return to the same nests each year. Females lay two eggs, but the first one is usually smaller and almost always lost, or the chicks hatched from it don’t survive. Parents take turns incubating the second egg and the process takes between four to five weeks.
Where to see them: In the sub-antarctic islands. The Falkland Islands continue to harbor one of the largest colonies, although their size has dwindled since the establishment of the local fishing industry in the 1990s.
Cool fact #6:
Macaroni penguins occasionally nest within other nearby bird colonies, such as those of different albatross species.
Although at first glance they may look similar to their rock-hopping relatives, Macaroni penguins are much larger and have golden yellow crests that start between their eyes and extend in a ‘v’ shape. Their average life span in the wild is 12 years, they grow 24 to 27 inches tall, and can weigh 8 to 14 pounds.
Macaroni penguins breed mainly on rocky coasts in isolated colonies. Like the rockhoppers, macaronis also lay two eggs each season, with usually only the second one completing the cycle. Incubation can last approximately five weeks and the parents take turns brooding.
Where to see them: In the Falkland, South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland islands, as well as in the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of Chile and Argentina.
Cool fact #7:
Gentoos are the fastest penguins. They can swim faster than any other diving bird, exceeding 22 miles per hour.
This is third largest penguin species. Adult individuals have orange beaks and legs, as well as a white patch that starts under each eye and covers the top of their heads. Their average life span in the wild is 15 to 20 years, they grow approximately 30 inches tall, and can weigh up to 12 pounds.
Gentoo penguins stay away from ice and snow for breeding and build a round nest with stones, grass, moss, and feathers. Sometimes, males will gift stones to females when trying to mate with them. Females usually lay two eggs that hatch after an incubation period of four to five weeks.
Where to see them: In the Falkland, South Georgia, South Sandwich, and South Orkney islands, as well as in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Cool fact #8:
Chinstraps are considered the most volatile penguins. Despite sharing territory with other penguin species, they can easily get riled up and engage in fights over nesting space.
This is one of the most abundant penguin species. They get their name from the thin black band under their chin, which resembles the strap of a helmet. Their average life span in the wild is 12 years, they grow approximately 28 inches tall, and can weigh up to 11 pounds.
Chinstrap penguins establish their breeding colonies on rocky coasts free of ice and snow. Like the gentoo penguins, they build circular nests with stones and other materials and females lay two eggs a few days apart from each other. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs during five to six weeks.
Where to see them: In the Falkland, South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland islands, as well as in the Antarctic Peninsula. The uninhabited South Sandwich Island of Zavodovski harbors the largest colony.
Cool fact #9:
Adélie penguins lead their young in feeding chases. Instead of tending to them in their nests, adults often take off with their offspring following behind and crying for food, but always providing protection. Scientists believe this is meant to minimize harassment from other chicks and to reduce the effects of sibling competition.
Named after the wife of French explorer Dumont d’Urville, who discovered the species in 1840, this is one of the smallest penguins found in Antarctica. Their backs and heads are completely black, while their entire bellies are white. Their average life span in the wild is 10 to 20 years, they grow approximately 27 inches tall, and can weigh 8.5 to 12 pounds.
Adélie and emperor penguins are the ones that breed further south. Adélie penguins nest in small mounds they build with rocks, and they are very territorial. Females lay one or two eggs and take turns with the males to incubate them during five to six weeks.
Where to see them: In the South Sandwich, South Orkney, and South Shetland islands, as well as in the Antarctic continent.
Cool fact #10
Emperor penguins are amazing divers. Although dives generally last three to six minutes, they can stay underwater for up to 22 minutes.
This is the tallest of all penguin species and the only one that breeds during the Antarctic winter. Adults have black backs and white bellies, with a yellow patch that goes from their ears to their upper breast. Their feet are equipped with strong claws to grip the ice. Their average life span in the wild is 15 to 20 years, they grow approximately 47 inches tall, and can weigh up to 88 pounds.
Emperor penguins breed on ice sheets surrounding islands and icebergs, and they walk great distances to reach their colonies, usually located away from the water. They don’t build nests. Females lay one egg and males are in charge of incubating it for approximately two months. This is the only penguin species that is not territorial, which allows them to huddle in large numbers to keep warm.
The melting of sea ice due to global warming has significantly reduced the emperor penguin’s habitat. Its dire situation led the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to grant it threatened species status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on October 25, 2022. The main contribution of this listing is the ban of activities that may harm a threatened foreign species, and the establishment of protections as needed to prevent further decline and facilitate recovery.
Where to see them: The Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic peninsula. This is also the most northerly breeding ground of the emperor penguin.
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Born in Santiago, Chile, Marcela is a freelance bilingual journalist and expert on outdoor travel who writes for several magazines and websites. She’s earned a master’s degree in tourism with an emphasis on ecotourism in Australia, operated a tour company, and co-authored a Spanish-language guidebook about Chile’s national parks. Her travel career has taken her all over South America, and she has also lived in Australia, Costa Rica, and the United States.
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