There’s simply no more iconic Antarctic animal than the penguin. Indeed, this flightless seabird could be said to share laurels with the polar bear as the most widely recognized flag bearers of polar ecology.

Without question, these tuxedoed critters probably rank at the very top of wildlife your average Antarctic traveler wants to clap eyes on. And, fortunately, the odds of doing so are essentially guaranteed on most itineraries down to the White Continent.

Penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere and are the only flightless seabird alive today, though in historical times they had an unrelated counterpart in northern oceans: the now-extinct great auk of the North Atlantic, whose resemblance to penguins was reflected in its Latin name of Pinguinus. (Humans managed to wipe the great auk off the face of the Earth by the mid-1800s.)

Depending on which taxonomist you consult, there are about 18 to 20 species of living penguin. Despite the birds’ famous association with the White Continent, all but two of these species don’t actually live in Antarctica, with many penguins found along the southern coasts of Australia, Africa, and South America, but perhaps the most famous example being the Galapagos penguin which is endemic to its namesake archipelago on the Equator. (Despite how often they appear in popular culture beside polar bears—and even Santa Claus—penguins do not live in the Arctic).

Instead, most penguin species call sub-Antarctic and temperate waters home, with New Zealand—part of the evolutionary homeland of penguins—and its Southern Ocean islands being the center of penguin diversity.

Only two species of penguins—the emperor and the Adélie—are exclusive to the Antarctic, but five species regularly utilize the continent: emperor, Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, and macaroni. If the sub-Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands are included—and they commonly are given their proximity to the continent and popular inclusion on Antarctica cruise itineraries—seven species may be considered (emperor, Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, macaroni, king, and rockhopper).

There are six genera of penguins, three of which contain the main Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species. These are the great penguins (Aptenodytes), which include the emperor and king penguins; the brush-tailed penguins (Pygoscelis), comprising the Adélie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins; and the crested penguins (Eudyptes), mainly represented in this region by the rockhoppers and the macaroni penguin.

According to the British Antarctic Survey, the total penguin breeding population in the Antarctic has been estimated at about 20 million pairs, making the number of penguins in Antarctica approximately 40 million. It seems a lot, but when you consider that emperor penguins when huddled together during winter can reach a density of 19 birds per square meter, perhaps less surprising!

How were such figures calculated? The amazing answer lies in penguin poop, literally! Masses of penguins produce a lot of guano, so much in fact, that it can be seen from space and proves a crucial tool in identifying colonies and helping with estimating numbers.

Scientists scrutinizing Antarctic satellite imagery for guano have made major discoveries, including a previously undocumented “supercolony” of Adélie penguins on the Danger Islands off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—the largest penguin colony in Antarctica at 1.5 million (not much smaller than the largest penguin colony in the world which can be found on Zavodovski Island in the sub-Antarctic South Sandwich Islands, home to an estimated two million chinstrap penguins)—and, in 2020, discovering 11 new emperor-penguin colonies on the White Continent.

Penguins are considered coastal animals, not land dwellers, so despite what you may have seen in cartoons, there are no penguins at the South Pole itself which lies some 1270 km from the nearest coast, not to mention at an elevation of 2835 m. You will, however, see penguins all along the coastline of Antarctica, particularly around the more temperate, northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (where incidentally the greatest variety of Antarctic penguin species can be found).

Arguably the most famous place they live is in East Antarctica’s Adélie Land where March of the Penguins was filmed. This French film, which landed an Oscar in 2006 for “Best Documentary Feature,” was shot at an emperor colony near the Dumont d’Urville Station operated by France and is one of the most iconic nature documentaries of recent decades, focusing on the remarkable reproductive routine of the emperor penguin.

Antarctica’s penguins are all stocky, squat birds, with wings transformed into flippers that propel them with speed and agility underwater. They’re dominantly suited up in black and white, but some species show striking little splashes of color—as in the orange and yellow cheek patches of the king and emperor penguins, respectively, and the yellow crests of the crested penguins.

(It’s worth noting that while the black-and-white tuxedo look is the traditional penguin coloration, aberrant plumage due to pigment mutations is occasionally seen among Antarctic penguins, including melanistic (all-black) and albinistic (all-white) individuals. In December 2019, a photographer captured snaps of an intriguing yellow-colored king penguin—which may have been a true albinistic animal lacking the pigment melanin or leucistic, with partial loss of melanin—in South Georgia.)

Penguins come ashore to breed and molt, but otherwise spend most of their time at sea, capable of riding currents long-distance. Krill, squid, and fish are the main prey. Not known for great above-water vision, penguins boast keen underwater eyesight. While most smaller species are shallow divers, the big emperor and king penguins can dive hundreds of feet below the surface.

Arguably their greatest evolutionary trait is their supraorbital gland. Located just above the eye, this filters salt from their bloodstream, which they subsequently excrete via their bills, or sneezing! Salt consumption isn’t just a hazard of consuming their prey—penguins have the amazing ability to drink seawater to quench their thirst, if necessary. However their preferred hydration fix is of the freshwater variety, most commonly drinking meltwater or eating snow.

Graceful and swift in the water, penguins look more awkward on land, but actually they’re pretty darn good at getting around topside: waddling upright or “tobogganing” along on their stomachs. Such terrestrial locomotion, for example, allows the emperor penguin to trek tens of miles between its nesting colony on the ice to open water.

Penguins show great navigational abilities, able to steer their way back to specific breeding areas from their faraway ocean wanderings; studies on their wayfinding abilities ashore suggest they may use the sun as a reference, and that may be true at sea as well.

As with many kinds of Antarctic wildlife, visitors to the White Continent and the sub-Antarctic islands enjoy rich penguin-viewing because of the birds’ breeding activities, with most of the region’s penguins assembling in breeding colonies amidst the exposed rock, beaches, and tussock grass of its coasts in the austral spring and summer—the peak tourist season. The famous exception is the emperor penguin which overwinters on its nest on fast ice (sea ice “fastened” to the coastline), but some gentoo colonies also breed in winter.

Most penguins breed once a year, though the king penguin has a more drawn-out reproductive schedule taking around 14–16 months from laying to offspring fledging; most lay two eggs as the norm, though the two kinds of great penguin lay just one. Both male and female penguins usually take turns incubating after the female lays the egg, taking breaks to restore energy reserves at sea. In the case of the emperor, though, incubation is mainly the male’s job.

Upon fledging, penguin chicks gather together in nurseries called créches, visited by their food-bringing parents. In the créche, the chicks molt off their fuzzy down and grow their first coat of stiffer, adult-style feathers, which then allows them to begin foraging for themselves in the water.

Mortality tends to be pretty high among eggs and chicks in penguin colonies, with threats ranging from starvation to predation by skuas, giant petrels, sheathbills, gulls, and other marauders. And young penguins first venturing to sea in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic are highly vulnerable to leopard seals.

If they get through the gauntlet of their youth, penguins may live for several decades (up to a half-century or so in the case of the emperor), though adults are still vulnerable to leopard seals as well as orcas and fur seals.

Bygone naturalists postulated whether penguins were primitive birds, perhaps representing some ancestral flightless avian form. Actually, the fossil evidence shows penguins evolved from flying ancestors. And unlike such flightless land birds as ostriches and emus, the penguin skeleton includes the breastbone keel of flying birds, which helps them “fly” through the water.

A 2020 study showed that, while the ultimate evolutionary roots of penguins reach back some 60 million years, modern penguins arose roughly 20 million years ago, likely in temperate waters in the vicinity of Australia and New Zealand. From that source region, it seems penguins spread southward toward the polar realm and northward toward the equator.

The opening of the Drake Passage and the intensification of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the great “West Wind Drift” that churns eastward around the Southern Ocean, probably helped drive the diversification (speciation) of penguins, isolating Antarctic types—as south-drifting Antarctica became increasingly iced-over, multiple penguin species there likely waddled into extinction—and funneling penguin dispersal across the Southern Hemisphere.

Ice-age expansions of sea ice well north along the South American coast may have helped the ancestors of today’s Galapagos penguin move into subtropical waters. So did the formation of the cold Humboldt Current edging the western South American coastline, as the similar cold west-coast current of the Benguela probably aided penguins in colonizing the seashores of southwestern Africa. These cold currents help coolwater-adapted penguins survive in these lower latitudes, and the fact that they don’t cross the Equator may be the primary reason penguins never made major inroads into the Northern Hemisphere.

So across millions of years, penguins—originally a temperate creature—adapted themselves to both the frigid polar seas of Antarctica and much balmier, even tropical, waters to the north.

It’s thought that great penguins, the Aptenodytes line (which include the emperor and king), split off from the main lineage of modern penguins early on in their evolution.

Ancient penguins included some real whoppers, namely the “mega-penguins” of such extinct genera as Anthropornis, Pachydyptes, and Palaeeudyptes. These bygone giants make today’s emperor penguin look a tad runty. Some of these were Antarctic species, such as the so-called “colossus penguin” (Palaeeudyptes klekowskii) identified in 2014 from Late Eocene fossils on Seymour Island along the Antarctic Peninsula. This beast may have stood up to 6.6 feet tall and weighed more than 250 pounds. Even bigger was a yet-older penguin species described in early 2023 from 57-million-year-old fossils found on the New Zealand coast: Kuminanu fordycei, which approached 350 pounds.

Interestingly, evidence suggests the closest relatives of penguins among modern birds are the Procellariiformes, the “tube-nosed” seabirds—including albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and prions—which dominate much of the remaining avian diversity of the Antarctic. Penguins and tubenoses share the ability to excrete salt through modified nasal passages, which allows both to drink seawater.

The following list includes the seven main penguin species of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic realm. It’s important to note that, depending on your route to the Antarctic and the vagaries of penguin-foraying, you may have the chance to spot other species not listed here, including the Magellanic penguin of South America that sometimes drifts into the Polar Front zone and beyond, or the Royal penguins which are endemic to Macquarie Island if traveling from New Zealand. But the types of penguins in Antarctica below are the primary stars around the bottom of the world:

Often considered the emblem of Antarctica, the mighty emperor penguin is the largest of all living penguins, standing more than three feet tall and weighing up to 100 pounds. It’s also a true polar species, found only in Antarctica and rarely seen north of the Antarctic Circle. It breeds primarily on the pack ice of the Ross and Weddell seas as well as parts of the outer continental coast. The northernmost known emperor colony is along the Antarctic Peninsula, off Snow Hill Island.

The emperor penguin is famous for its hardiness: Male emperor penguins endure the globe’s fiercest weather while incubating single eggs through the long, dark Antarctic winter.  They’re the only birds to breed on the White Continent in wintertime. And that means contending with frigid temperatures dropping down to -58 degrees F (-50 degrees C) and ferocious katabatic winds that may exceed 100 mph (161 kph).

Emperors show numerous special adaptations to the extreme climate they live in. They’re well insulated by their plumage and body fat, recycle body heat via tightly packed veins and arteries, and are generally well-designed for cold given their large body size and proportionately small flippers and beak. Their feet come equipped with fatty reserves preventing freezing and heavy claws for gripping bare ice. And emperors withstand the worst of winter cold and storms by huddling together; they’re the only penguins that aren’t territorial, a sociability that helps keep male emperors (and those eggs) alive.

The female emperor lays her single egg in autumn. The male then begins incubating it against his bare brood patch, sheltered atop his feet and by his feathers. The energy-depleted female, meanwhile, makes an epic trek across the sea ice to reach the ocean and feed during the austral winter while the male incubates the egg within the huddled breeding colony.

The female returns in July or August, shortly after the egg has hatched, and relieves the male by taking over chick-tending duties; the male, which has fasted for all the incubation period, then heads for the ocean to feed. Thereafter, emperor parents alternate caring for the chick and foraging at sea.

Emperor penguins are the deepest-diving of all birds, capable of going down past 1,000 feet for as long as 20 or so minutes.

A 2019 assessment reckoned the total number of emperor breeding pairs at close to 260,000.

Second only to the emperor in size, the king penguin mainly breeds far to the north on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia, the Kerguelens, and Crozet Island, and extends into temperate waters around the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego. King penguins may be expanding into the Antarctic zone, though, as breeding pairs have been seen in the South Sandwich Islands and the South Shetlands near the Antarctic Peninsula.

The king penguin may reach about three feet in height and weigh as much as 30 or 40 pounds. They look very similar to their bigger brother the emperor, but their cheek patches are orange instead of golden, and they’re more slender-looking with proportionately larger bills and flippers.

This species shares with the emperor great prowess in diving: King penguins pursue fish and squid to depths of hundreds of feet.

Breeding colonies may number more than 100,000 birds. Perhaps 1.1 million breeding pairs compose the global population of king penguins, considered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a species of Least Concern.

Fascinatingly, early Antarctic explorers thought they had discovered a new species of penguin with thick brown down, which they dubbed the Wooly penguin, only to later realize these fluffy birds were actually only king penguin chicks.

Named by the French Antarctic explorer, Jules Dumont d’Urville in 1840 after his beloved wife Adéle (as is Adélie Land and Adele Island), the medium-sized Adélie penguin, instantly recognizable with its striking white eye-ring, is, along with the emperor, one of two penguins that may be considered a true Antarctic specialist: their circumpolar range consists of the White Continent’s coastline and adjacent islands. While the Adélie penguin breeds on land in summer, its distribution is closely tied to sea ice, and it spends much of its year hunting krill and fish amid the pack.

As one of the best-studied birds in the world, the Adélie is subject of research programs galore, especially their nesting sites which they habitually return to each year. Comprised effectively of layers of their own mummified ancestors and semi-fossilised faeces, perfectly preserved by the extreme cold and dry conditions of the continent, these sites are proving a true treasure trove of DNA, helping reveal secrets of the mechanism of evolution itself, as well as serving up clues about past climatic conditions, changes in sea ice and ice shelves, and even the impact of historical human activities such as whaling.

The IUCN lists the estimated global population of Adélie penguins, which it considers a species of Least Concern, at some 10 million birds, with its consistently largest colony  located at the entrance to the Ross Sea at Cape Adare, home to an estimated 340 000 nesting pairs.

A skinny black band running around the cheek and lower jaw of the chinstrap penguin gives it its name. This circumpolar penguin, another medium-sized species like the Adélie, breeds on the Antarctic Peninsula and many Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, with the largest breeding population found in the South Sandwich Islands. The chinstrap rookery at Baily Head on Deception Island in the South Shetlands is one of the biggest single penguin colonies in Antarctica, numbering up to 200,000 pairs.

Chinstrap penguins rear two chicks during the austral summer, and spend the rest of the foraying foraging north of the pack ice.

Although it’s considered among the most numerous of all penguins, the global population of perhaps eight million chinstraps is thought to be decreasing.

The gentoo is the third-largest penguin species, standing between two and three feet tall and weighing anywhere from 10 to 18 pounds. Another Antarctic and sub-Antarctic species, it’s found from the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands to the Crozet Islands of the South Indian Ocean. The biggest breeding colonies are found in the Falklands (home to the largest population of Gentoos on the planet), South Georgia, and on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Shetlands.

The global population of about 774,000 gentoos is thought to be roughly stable, and regional increases in numbers have been seen, including along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Scientists aren’t settled on whether there’s just one species of rockhopper penguin with several subspecies, or whether the latter—such as the southern and eastern rockhopper—ought to be considered standalone species. Rockhoppers are the smallest species of Antarctic penguin; the southern rockhopper, either a distinct species or subspecies, is the littlest of all crested penguins, usually weighing from about four to eight pounds or so.

Rockhoppers in one form or another breed on many islands within and to the near-north of the sub-Antarctic zone, including Macquarie Island, Heard Island, and the Falklands. The IUCN estimates the southern rockhopper’s global population as about 2.5 million birds. Rockhopper penguins have experienced significant population declines in many areas, including the Falkland Islands.

This good-sized penguin is named for its prominent orange-yellow head crest, which calls to mind the extravagant headwear favored by the dandyish 18th-century Englishmen mockingly called “macaronis.”

Mainly found breeding on sub-Antarctic islands—the Crozet and Kerguelen islands being the most important sites, followed by Heard Island and South Georgia—macaroni penguins also have a single rookery on the Antarctic Peninsula. They nest in very big colonies that can number in the hundreds of thousands, and may occupy surprisingly steep island terrain.

Although among the most abundant penguin species, the macaroni penguin population, estimated at about 6.3 million breeding pairs in 2013, is declining.

Warming waters, variations in sea ice, shifting patterns of prey availability, and other phenomena connected to climate change are impacting the penguins of the Antarctic. In parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, declines in certain species such as Adélie have been blamed on such factors as reduced sea ice and krill numbers as well as more frequent rainfall, which can kill chicks. Meanwhile, the open-water generalist gentoo penguin may be expanding its Antarctic range as sea ice declines.

Early sea-ice breakup in multiple consecutive years was thought to be the primary cause of the catastrophic collapse of what formerly was one of the largest colonies of emperor penguins in the world, at Halley Bay in the Weddell Sea. Once numbering up to 23,000 birds, it was effectively abandoned after 2019.

The species accounts we’ve given above point to some of the major penguin hotspots in the Southern Ocean. Sub-Antarctic and Antarctic islands as well as the Antarctic Peninsula, especially the west side, include some of the largest and most species-rich penguin colonies.

The emperor penguin is the toughest to see of the Antarctic species given its remote habitat and unique breeding season. But it’s also a highly coveted sight, enough so that special cruises—to Snow Hill Island, for example, or into the Ross Sea—target it.

Be sure to always abide by proper Antarctic wildlife-viewing etiquette when penguin-watching: Avoid approaching penguins closer than 16 feet, stay at least 50 feet away from nests, and definitely don’t touch the birds! (Be aware, however, that penguins themselves may not abide by these interspecies-interaction guidelines, and sometimes fearlessly pass very close to people onshore.) Also: Wash your footwear to avoid tracking penguin poop back to your cruise vessel!

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