Upon receiving the news that I’d be heading south to the Antarctic Peninsula, the very first thing that came to mind was this: PENGUINS! I can’t pinpoint what makes these birds so very appealing. Is it their formal attire? Their stout little legs and webby feet? The incredible grace with which they fly through the water, breaking the surface like little porpoises? Veterans of Antarctica say the penguin colonies stink to high heaven and make a terrific racket. But that’s not enough to make me any less excited to see penguins, messy in their late-season plumage, dotting the icebergs and muddy island slopes of their habitat. Penguins! I can’t wait!
In order to address myself properly to the penguin population, I’ve been learning how to identify each variety of bird. Here’s my cheat sheet for penguin spotting.
Chinstrap Penguins: Unmistakable, as they are the only penguins with, you guessed it, a chinstrap. They look like they’re wearing little black helmets. They grow to just over two feet tall.
Macaroni Penguins: Another unmistakable variety of penguin, they have bright yellow-orange crests on their heads, their faces are black and their bills are a reddish color. They’re showy, hence their name—macaroni, a bit of 18th-century slang for a dandy.
Adélie Penguins: They have short beaks and all-black heads with a white ring around their eyes. The bigger ones get to be about 30 inches high. Apparently, they’re insanely fast swimmers, reaching speeds near 45 miles an hour.
Gentoo Penguins: This bird has a red-orange beak and a white band across the top of the head. This is bird “number three” for size—they’re bigger than chinstrap or Adélie penguins and can be as tall as three feet. They’re serious about nest building, a project involving gathering the best stones for a circular pile that’s lower in the middle.
King Penguins: This ultra-formal bird dresses up the classic black and white look with touches of yellowy-orange. These aren’t Antarctic Peninsula residents—they’re found in the Falklands, the Shetlands and parts of Tierra del Fuego. King penguins grow to three feet in height and they’re great divers, able to plunge to over 600 feet deep.
Emperor Penguins: Emperor penguins, the largest species, can grow to four feet tall. They have bright yellow ear patches. Emperors are famous for the epic journeys they make to fetch food for their young—the parents taking turns tending to the chick and traveling great distances to provide for their growing offspring. Emperor penguins are the big screen stars of March of the Penguins, a beautiful documentary that’s a must-see for anyone interested in penguins.
I’m hoping to see as many species of penguins as possible and, by chewing through a lot of pre-trip reading and documentary viewing, I hope to identify those birds on first sight. “Gentoo penguin off the port bow!” I plan to shout, alerting all within earshot of my first penguin sighting. I also plan to be wrong, often, and to take that opportunity to defer to the naturalists and other experts on board who know a lot more than I do about the local wildlife.
It’s going to be the best classroom ever.
For more detail on the wildlife you’ll see on an Antarctica cruise, check out TravelWild’s Animals of Antarctica page.