There are just 17 species of penguin worldwide, four of these live and nest around the Antarctic and three live and nest on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, altogether making up seven Antarctic penguins. It is estimated that there are around 20 million breeding pairs of penguins in Antarctica, with 19 penguins per square metre in winter, when species like the emperor lay their eggs. This means that it’s impossible not to spot them if you’re there during that time. We’ve put together a cheat sheet of Antarctic penguins to help you tell your adelies from your gentoos…
Emperor penguins are the ones all Happy Feet fans want to catch a glimpse of. These endearing creatures are the giants of the penguin world and can grow up to four feet tall. They have a light yellow patch on their chests and around their ears, with the upper mandible of their bill being either pink, orange or lilac. Like king penguins, they lay one egg which is incubated by the male in a pouch attached to its feet. You have to go all the way to Snow Hill Island to see them, an almost completely snow-capped island in the icy and remote Weddel sea, rarely visited on Antarctica cruises – but it’s definitely worth it.
An estimated 2.5 million pairs of adelie penguins live in Antarctica. These are the smallest of penguins in the whole of the continent, and also the most widespread. Although they appear a little clumsy on land, they are rapid swimmers and can dive down to 180m but prefer to catch their prey (krill and fish) closer to the surface. Adelie penguins are found on the Antarctic continent and surrounding islands including the South Orkney and South Sandwich Islands.
You can tell them apart with the bike-helmet-like markings around their heads that they’ve been named after. Chinstrap penguins lay two eggs and both the male and female take turns to keep the eggs warm. They make their nests using stones on the rocky islands around Antarctica, with around 7 million of them living there. Like adelie penguins, they also feed on fish and krill.
Cousins of the adelie penguins, gentoos have the second-smallest population, with 300,000 breeding pairs in the Antarctic region. They lay a clutch of two eggs inside nests made of stones, grass, moss and feathers, within three consecutive days and both parents will take turns to keep them warm for over a month before the penguin chicks are ready to hatch. Gentoo penguins’ diet consist of squid, fish and crustaceans.
The second-largest of the Antarctic species, the king penguin reaches up to 94 cm in height. Usually found on the coasts of the sub-Antarctic islands, they have the most unusual breeding cycle which lasts approximately 14 months, from courtship to the fledgling of the chick. Like their cousins, the emperors, king penguins do not build nests but incubate the eggs on their feet. You can see them in their thousands on South Georgia island, which is a spectacular sight to behold.
No, they’re not keen on mac and cheese. These quirky penguins, which prefer to dwell on the sub-Antarctic islands (including the Falklands and South Georgia), got their names from a mid-18th century term for a man who wore hats with flashy feathers, when they were first discovered by a group of English explorers. They’ve certainly got one of the most distinctive hair-dos of the penguin world, with comical bright orange crest feathers protruding from their heads.
There are two things that set the Rockhopper penguin apart: the crest of spiky yellow feathers around their head and their peculiar gait. Unlike other penguins who typically waddle and slide around on their bellies, the rockhopper bounds. They can be spotted hopping over rocks and crevices of the craggy islands north of Antarctica, along the islands and inlets of Patagonia from Argentina to Chile, where they live. Another distinctive feature of theirs is that as they age, their bills turn from grey to orange.
- Although penguins typically drink meltwater from streams, they often ingest seawater while hunting and they have a gland located above their eye to remove salt from their bloodstream - which they then excrete through their bill or by sneezing.
- Emperor penguins are well adapted to the cold and have 100 feathers per square inch.
- The smallest species of penguin is the blue penguin (also known as the little or fairy penguin), which is just over one foot tall. You can see these cute creatures on Phillip Island in Victoria, Australia.
- The rarest type of penguin is the Galapagos penguin.
- South African penguins have evolved to keep cool in searing temperatures of 40C. As the temperature rises, blood is sent to the glands above their eyes and cooled by the surrounding air, which is why the area around their eyes are pink.
- Emperor penguins are astounding swimmers and divers and can dive down to 564 metres, which is nearly double the height of the Shard.
- Penguins’ black and white suits act as camouflage; the black part blends in with the ocean from above and their white underbelly merges seamlessly with the surface of the water from below, protecting them from predators like leopard seals.
If you'd like a full Happy Feet experience in Antarctica and want to come nose-to-bill with these adorable penguins, check out our Antarctica itineraries, call our experts on 020 7337 9010 or make an enquiry.