Before I travelled to Antarctica I knew I would almost certainly see penguins, but I had no idea what types of penguins I would see. To be honest, at that stage I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I wanted to watch and photograph as many different types of penguins, seals, icebergs and assorted majestic landscapes as possible.
But as we travelled around the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica, and began to spot different types of penguins, I realised that each species of penguin is unique. They have their own character, their own habits and behaviours, their own amusing little idiosyncrasies. I wanted to know more about them, and the more I discovered, the more I enjoyed watching and taking photos of them.
There are around 18 species of penguin on the planet (the exact number is debated), living all the way from Antarctica to as far north as the Equator, but only 8 types of penguins can be found in and around the frigid waters of Antarctica. So for those of you who are hoping to see them in person someday, and also those of you who are just interested to know more about the types of penguins that live in Antarctica, here’s a list that will hopefully tell you everything you wanted to know about these funny, fearless, flightless birds.
1/ King Penguin
The king penguin is one of the world’s most iconic types of penguin, and the most easily recognised. Standing up to 4 feet tall, they’re the second biggest species of penguin, easily recognisable by their bright orange lower beak and bright orange ear patches.
King penguins gather together in huge colonies, sometimes containing hundreds of thousands of birds. One of the largest is at St Andrew’s Bay on the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, where at the height of the breeding season there may be up to half a million adults and chicks all in one place. The noise and the smell of so many penguins all together is unbelievable!
These types of penguins don’t build nests. Instead, they lay just one egg and keep it balanced on their feet, kept warm under a flap of skin. Both parents look after the egg and the chick: each taking it in turns to care for their offspring or go out to sea to catch fish and bring back food for the other.
This is hard work! King penguins typically weigh up to 15 kg (33 lb) at the start of the breeding season, and by the end they have worked so hard they weigh only 8-11 kg (17-24 lb).
There are an estimated 2.2 million breeding pairs of king penguins in the world. Their conservation status is listed as ‘Least Concern’ because their population is thought to be increasing.
Once the chick is old enough, both parents will go to fetch food, leaving the chick in a large ‘creche’ with other chicks – sometimes for over a month. When the parent returns, they must locate their infant amongst all the others by calling and listening out for returning whistles. Somehow they do manage to recognise each other’s calls amongst the noise!
King penguin chicks are brown and ridiculously fluffy. In fact they look so different that early explorers thought they were a different species of penguin! It takes them around 14-16 months to reach adulthood, after which they moult off all their baby fur to reveal the sleek penguin plumage underneath. Adult penguins also undergo an annual moult, and during this time they cannot go in the water as their moulting feathers will not insulate them.
The parents are serially monogamous – they will stay with the same partner during the breeding cycle, but will pair with a different partner the following year.
King penguins eat mainly lanternfish and squid, and are able to dive to depths up to 300 meters (1,000 feet) to find food.
Where to see King Penguins in Antarctica
They only spend part of the year on Antarctica itself, when they can be found around the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula.
2/ Emperor Penguin
The Emperor penguin is perhaps the most famous and iconic type of penguin in Antarctica. They’re the largest species of penguin in the world, standing over four feet tall and weighing up to 45 kg (100 lb).
Emperors are related to kings and look quite similar. You’ll notice though that their orange ear patches are less clearly demarcated and fade to yellow at the bottom.
While all other types of penguins in Antarctica breed in the summer months, Emperor penguins breed in the southern winter, from March to December. To do so they must endure some of the coldest temperatures on the planet, sometimes dropping as low as -50° C (-58° F) with wind speeds and blizzards reaching up to 200 kph (124 mph).
They cope with the bitter conditions by forming huddles to keep warm, taking it in turns to stand in the middle where it’s warmest. They also have insulating feathers, large reserves of body fat and small flippers relative to their size to conserve heat.
Like king penguins, they breed in pairs. The male incubates the egg on his feet while the female goes to hunt at sea. Once the chick has hatched, they swap so the male gets a turn to feed. He often has to walk for dozens of miles across the ice to reach the sea. Emperor penguin chicks are fluffy and grey with black heads and white faces.
There are an estimated 600,000 Emperor penguins. Their conservation status is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ due to climate change.
Where to see Emperor Penguins in Antarctica
Emperor penguins live in some the coldest, remotest parts of the region and breed on sea ice at least 50 km from the water’s edge. That means that you are very unlikely to see one on any normal Antarctic expedition. While you may get very lucky and spot one random straggler, if you are really determined to see them you will need get there on a helicopter trip, which obviously doesn’t come cheap!
Unfortunately I haven’t been lucky enough to see Emperor penguins (yet!) but I hope to one day!
3/ Gentoo Penguin
One of the types of penguin that you will probably see more than any other in Antarctica is the Gentoo. Gentoos are the third largest species of penguin after emperors and kings, standing up to about 90 cm (3 ft) tall, with white patches above their eyes and a bright orangey-red beak.
Gentoos breed in colonies, and if you’re visiting Antarctica during breeding season you may well get to see one. They’re sociable and quite noisy birds, though not as noisy as some other types of penguin. They tend to build their colonies near the sea but slightly inland. To get back to the sea to fish, they follow established routes through the snow. Over time these routes wear into channels, or ‘penguin highways’.
Gentoos build their nests on the ground from small stones and twigs. Males will attempt to woo the females with gifts of stones, which they sometimes steal from other birds’ nests. Naturally, if the owner spots the thief, it will defend its territory vigorously.
Female gentoos typically lay two eggs, which is why you may see these penguins with twin chicks. Sadly, these tiny chicks are vulnerable and make easy prey for marauding skuas.
There are an estimated 770,000 Gentoos, and their conservation status is currently listed as ‘Least Concern’.
Where to see Gentoo Penguins in Antarctica
Gentoos are most easily spotted in the Antarctic peninsula, Falkland Islands, South Shetlands and South Georgia. I took most of the photos above on our visit to the Antarctic peninsula, where we were able to visit several Gentoo penguin colonies.
Read more: Wildlife Wonders On A South Georgia Cruise
4/ Adélie Penguin
In my opinion, Adélie penguins are the funniest and cutest of all the types of penguins in Antarctica. With their inquisitive beady eyes, their petite stature (at a height of up to 70 cm or 2.2 ft they’re the smallest species of penguin in Antarctica), and the determined way they waddle about, they’re full of character and great fun to watch.
Adélies get their name from Adèle D’Urville, who was the wife of 19th-century French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. In 1840 he named an area of southern Antarctica Adélie Land after his wife, and later the penguins were given the same name.
Like Gentoos, to whom they are related, Adélies gather in colonies, some thousands of birds strong. They breed on land during the warmer months from October to February, and then spend the winter out at sea among the pack ice. During breeding season Adélies lay two eggs and the parents take turns caring for them. Once the chicks are about three weeks old both parents leave them in the penguin ‘creche’ with the other chicks and head off to hunt. Adélies eat mainly fish and Antarctic krill.
Despite their small size, Adelie penguins are strong walkers and swimmers. They often travel huge distances between their winter and summer grounds, with some Adélies known to have travelled over 12,000 km (7500 miles) in a single year!
Today, there are an estimated 10 million Adelie penguins, and their conservation status is listed as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN.
Where to see Adélie Penguins in Antarctica
Adélies are one of only two types of penguins to live on the mainland of Antarctica (the other being Emperors). However they are common along the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, so you stand a very good chance of seeing them on your Antarctic trip. The Adélie penguin colony at Cape Royds, Ross Island is the southernmost bird colony in the world.
5/ Chinstrap Penguin
It’s pretty obvious how Chinstrap penguins got their name – just take a look at the photo! Chinstraps are related to Adélies and Gentoos and are the most abundant species of penguin in Antarctica.
Chinstraps are great swimmers and can swim at speeds of 30 km/h (18 mph) using their flippers to ‘fly’ through the water. They also use a technique known as ‘porpoising’, where they leap into the air as they travel. This helps them go faster as air has less resistance than water. On land they often lie on their bellies and ‘toboggan’ across the ice.
Chinstraps are considered the most aggressive of all the types of penguins in Antarctica, and breeding is a bit of a soap opera. The males arrive at the colony five days before to claim the best nesting site and prepare it for their mates’ arrival. If a male can’t find a nest he likes, he may try to steal one from a rival.
Chinstraps are monogamous and return to the same partner every year; but if the female doesn’t show up, the male will pair up with someone else. If his original mate shows up later, the two females will fight over their man.
Like Adélies and Gentoos, Chinstraps lay two eggs and the parents take it turns to care for the young. After a few weeks, the chicks go to the communal creche for another two months, at which point they will grow their adult feathers and be able to fend for themselves.
Chinstraps mainly eat krill, and their number one predator is the fearsome leopard seal.
There are an estimated 8 million Chinstrap penguins in the world, though their numbers are thought to be decreasing. Currently, IUCN lists them as ‘Least Concern’.
Where to see Chinstrap Penguins in Antarctica
Chinstrap penguins prefer a slightly warmer climate and can be found around the fringes of the Antarctic circle, including on the Antarctic Peninsula, Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. There’s a colony of nearly a million Chinstrap penguins on Deception Island, which is where I took most of these photos.
Read more: 70+ Stunning South Georgia Photography Tips
6/ Macaroni Penguin
With their orange bills, red eyes and large, bright yellow crests that look like a mad professor’s eyebrows, Macaroni penguins one of the most striking types of penguins in Antarctica. There are six species of crested penguins, and Macaronis are the largest.
Their scientific name is Eudyptes chrysolophus which comes from the Greek Eudyptes, which means ‘good diver’ chrysolophus which means ‘with a golden crest’. They are a medium-sized penguin, standing about 70 cm tall and weighing up to about 7 kg.
They get their name from the ‘Macaroni Club’, a group of 18th-century aristocratic English dandies who dressed in flamboyant costumes and adopted Italian fashions. English sailors arriving at the Falkland Islands thought these penguins were rather similar, and the name stuck.
Macaroni penguins mainly feed on Antarctic krill, fish and squid. When foraging they spend more than 6 months at sea and have been known to travel more than 10,000 km (6000 miles). They can dive to depths of over 200 metres (650 ft).
Macaroni penguins breed in large, densely-packed colonies. Their nests are just a scrape in the ground, sometimes lined with stones or grass. The females normally lay two eggs, but the first is much smaller than the second and does not usually survive. Like other penguins, the parents take turns caring for the chick until it is old enough to be left in a creche. Baby Macaroni penguins take about two months to reach adulthood.
Macaroni penguins used to be the most numerous species of penguin in the world but their numbers are now in decline. An estimate in 2013 put them at around 6 million breeding pairs, and their conservation status is ‘Vulnerable’.
Where to see Macaroni Penguins in Antarctica
Macaroni Penguins are a bit harder to spot on an Antarctica trip than some other penguins because they tend to inhabit islands far from the usual tourists routes. However you may spot them on sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands. There is also one colony on the Peninsula itself.
7/ Rockhopper Penguin
Rockhopper penguins prefer to live in rocky coastal areas, so they cannot slide on their bellies on the ice like other types of penguin. Instead, they must hop from rock to rock – which is how they get their name. The clumsy way they jump around makes them one of the most hilarious penguin species to watch.
Standing on average just 55 cm (1.8 ft) tall, they’re the smallest of all the types of penguin in Antarctica.
Like Macaronis, Rockhoppers are crested penguins, with an orange beak, devilish red eyes, a spiky black crest, and those mad-professor yellow ‘eyebrows’.
Some experts think there are three subspecies of Rockhopper penguins: Northern, Eastern and Southern. All the ones in these photos – and the ones you’ll see on an Antarctica trip – are Southern Rockhopper penguins.
Despite their small size, Rockhoppers are among the noisiest, most aggressive species of penguin. They often fight for nesting sites, food or mates. They also regularly make loud calls, throwing their head back and ‘braying’ to locate a partner or chick, or to warn a rival to back off.
Rockhopper penguins mate for life. They make nests and burrows in coastal areas of tussock grass and always return to the same nest they used in previous years. The male arrives first, and the female a few weeks later. The female lays two eggs, but the first is smaller. While the female incubates the eggs, the male heads to sea for 2-4 weeks. When the chicks are old enough, they’ll be left in a creche with other chicks while both parents go to hunt – usually crustaceans and krill.
There are an estimated 3 million Rockhopper penguins on the planet today but their numbers have decreased by nearly 30% in the past few decades, possibly due to overfishing or climate change. Their conservation status is now listed as Vulnerable.
Where to see Rockhopper Penguins in Antarctica
Rockhopper penguins can be found all around the sub-Antarctic region and the southern tips of South America and islands in the Southern Indian Ocean, but the continent of Antartica itself is too cold for them. I took all these photos in the Falkland Islands.
8/ Magellanic Penguin
The last on my lovely list of types of penguins in Antarctica is this cute fella: the Magellanic Penguin. Like the Rockhoppers, this little chap doesn’t actually venture as far south as the continent of Antarctica itself, but you may well spot him on your voyage as you depart from Argentina or Chile, which is why I’ve included him here.
Magellanic penguins are named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was part of the expedition that first circumnavigated the globe in 1522 (though Magellan himself did not complete the entire journey). It’s thought it was his crew who first spotted them when they reached the southern tip of South America in 1520.
While most Antarctic penguin species are curious and will even approach visitors, Magellanic penguins are typically shy and will run away when humans come near.
Because they live further north where it’s warmer, this species of penguin is specially adapted to warmer temperatures. When they get too hot, they pant like a dog and extend their flippers to release extra heat.
Magellanic penguins also have a special salt gland above their eyes, which allows them to excrete all the salt from the water they swallow while fishing.
The latest estimate puts their numbers at about 2.2 – 3.2 million, but decreasing. They are currently listed as ‘Least Concern’ by IUCN.
Where to see Magellanic Penguins in Antarctica
Magellanic penguins breed in coastal Argentina, Chile and the Falkland Islands, which is where I saw them on my Antarctica trip.
And that’s your lot! A full list of all the types of penguins you might see on a trip to Antarctica. Which one is your favourite? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this, why not check out some of my other Antarctica posts?