The emperor penguin certainly lives up to its name, being the tallest and heaviest of all the penguin species. Adult emperor penguins grow to an average height of 45 inches tall, making them quite a sight as they waddle across the Antarctic ice.
To survive in the Antarctic, emperor penguins have had to adapt to the harsh conditions. When on the ice, they huddle together for warmth, in groups that can be as small as ten birds or a colony of several hundred. And because the penguins on the outside of the huddle are more exposed, the group slowly shifts so each penguin has its turn in the comparatively warm center.
When it’s time to breed, emperor penguins walk as far as 75 miles to breeding colonies, which can contain thousands of individuals. Here, females lay a single egg, which both parents care for until it hatches a couple of months later. It’s the father’s job to protect the egg from the cold. But rather than sit on the egg, the male balances the egg on its feet and covers it with a section of loose skin and feathers called a brood pouch.
Emperor penguins dive into the frigid waters in search of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods. Amazingly, they can dive to depths of around 1,755 feet—a feat unrivaled by any other bird. They can also stay under the water for 20 minutes. Their impressive diving abilities are helped by Arctic adaptations. A special type of hemoglobin lets them function at low oxygen levels and they can shut off certain non-essential organ functions to reduce their metabolism. Their solid bones help reduce barotrauma (more commonly known, among humans at least, as the bends).
On any Antarctic expedition, you’re certain to see some penguins. But emperor penguins are a far rarer sight, as the colonies lie in areas that are blocked by ice for most of the year. Still, on the right cruise with an appropriate vessel, you might have the chance to see these magnificent penguins.