Move over “Happy Feet”!
Yes, as Emperor penguins, you are the most regal of all types of penguins in Antarctica.
And we know you’re the biggest penguins in the world – standing proud and tall at four feet high.
Types of penguins in Antarctica
But, you see, we really want to talk about your smaller cousins.
Like Chinstraps penguins. Peppy little Adelies. Strange-looking Macaroni penguins, shy Gentoos and other types of Antarctica penguins.
These other types of penguins are the ones people usually see when they visit the top places in Antarctica on an expedition cruise.
Oh, and don’t worry Emperors, we’ll get back to talking more about you at the end of this post – after we cover your less well-known cousins :-).
How many types of penguins are there in Antarctica?
Interestingly, not all penguins live in Antarctica.
Oh, they all live in the Southern Hemisphere.
But there are 17 (or 18) species of penguins, depending on how you count them.
Some penguins live in New Zealand. Over in South Africa, you find African penguins – and watching them swim and waddle at Boulders Bay is one of the best things to do in Cape Town. Other penguins are found in Argentina, Australia and Chile.
And the penguins in Antarctica?
There are 7 types of penguins that live in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic regions.
Sub-Antarctic and Antarctic penguins
See the map below of the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands – this will help to place where exactly in the Southern Hemisphere the different penguin species live.
The Antarctic Peninsula juts out from mainland Antarctica.
North of the Antarctic Peninsula, you find the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands and the Falklands. They are all considered sub-Antarctica.
5 Fun facts about penguins in Antarctica
Let’s first get to know our cold-weather friends better as a whole by starting with a few fun Antarctica penguin facts:
1) Adelie penguins
Adelies are the really cute ones.
They’re named after Adelie, wife of the French explorer Jules Dumont D’Urville, who first discovered these penguins in 1840 on the Antarctic coast.
The smallest of the penguins in Antarctica, they’re only 18 to 24 inches tall, and they live on rockier parts of the Antarctic continent (unlike the Emperors, which live on ice).
We saw many Adelies on our cruise of the Antarctic Peninsula.
They’re fun to watch and put on quite a comical show – hopping around, marching one after the other along snow banks, and sledding and sliding down hills on their bellies.
Curious creatures, they’d climb over our outstretched legs as we sat on the snow to watch them.
And when we lay on our bellies to photograph them, they’d often come right up to us and peck at our camera lenses.
2) Chinstrap penguins
You can recognize Chinstrap penguins by the narrow band of black feathers which stretches from ear to ear, just below their chin.
They grow to about 28 to 30 inches tall.
Like Adelies, these Antarctic penguins build their nests by scraping the ground and lining it with pebbles – and they often steal pebbles from a neighbor’s nest.
But unlike other penguin species, where the stronger chick wins out when feeding, Chinstrap parents treat both chicks that hatch equally.
Sadly, Chinstraps are suffering the same fate as many other penguins – they’re declining in great numbers.
A 2020 scientific expedition to Elephant Island (on the outskirts of the South Shetland Islands) found that Chinstrap penguin numbers have dropped by 50% and more in the past half century. The likely reason is global warming.
Did you know Antarctica is blue? Okay, not all of Antarctica, but a lot of Antarctica’s icebergs are blue!
3) Gentoo penguins
Sporting bright orange beaks and feet, Gentoos are the third largest species of penguins in Antarctica (after Emperor and King penguins) – standing 30 to 35 inches tall.
These penguins are the fastest underwater swimmers and can rocket through the water at speeds of 17 mph.
But Gentoos are more timid, retreating if other penguins act boldly toward them.
They’re also considered a threatened species, with only about 320,000 breeding pairs worldwide.
We visited Antarctica at the beginning of their summer season – late November – which was during the Gentoo penguin mating season.
And it was particularly fascinating to watch them mate!
4) Macaroni penguins
You can easily recognize Macaroni penguins by their spiky orange eyelashes. (Or are they eyebrows? Hmmm…)
In fact, their name comes from that neon-colored feathered crest on their heads. It looks like the feathers fashionable British men (known as “macaronis”) wore on their hats in the 18th century.
Macaroni penguins grow to be about the same size and weight as Chinstrap penguins (#2 above).
They live in huge colonies – numbering in the hundreds of thousands – in the Falklands and other sub-Antarctic islands. There’s also one known colony on the Antarctica Peninsula.
In South Georgia, they breed in October and the eggs are laid two weeks later. The females lay two eggs, but the second egg rarely hatches.
Thankfully, there are plenty of Macaronis around – they’re the largest penguin population in the world.
5) Rockhopper penguins
Guess what Rockhopper penguins like to do?
Yes, that’s right. Hop from stone to stone.
Whereas the Adelies (#1) will slide down hills on their bellies, Rockhoppers prefer to hop about to get around the rocky shores of the Falklands, the Australian Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) and other sub-Antarctic islands where they’re found.
They’re also great divers, and can dive down more than 300 feet – and stay there for several minutes – while hunting for krill, squid and other yummy penguin food.
Like Macaroni penguins, they’re a crested penguin. Don’t you love their punk hair style? It goes with their red eyes, don’t you think?
They’re feisty little penguins too, and have a habit of getting into spats with each other.
And like most other types of penguins in Antarctica, when they mate, Rockhoppers mate for life. (Actually, 90% of birds are monogamous.)
6) King penguins
You can be forgiven for mistaking a King penguin for an Emperor. With their colorful yellow throats and patches of orange on their heads and beaks, King penguins look very similar to Emperor penguins.
Standing at 2.5 to 3+ feet tall, Kings are the second largest penguins (after Emperor penguins).
The largest colony is found in South Georgia – it’s estimated to have over 200,000 Kings. If you’re lucky enough to go there, you’ll be amazed at the sight of what looks like a sea of penguins spreading out as far as the eye can see over the rocky shoreline.
Kings are serially monogamous. So they mate with only one other penguin for the season. But the next season – they’ve got their eyes on new loves! About 70% find a new mate each season.
Kings are also unique in that they don’t make a nest out of a pile of stones like other Antarctic penguin species.
Instead, the female lays one egg.
And then both parents share “incubation” duty. They trade off carrying the egg around on the tops of their feet, covered by a fold of loose skin called a “brood hatch” to keep the egg warm.
Each parent cares for the egg for 6 to 18 days before shuffling it to the other parent. And when they’re not on egg incubation duty, they swim off looking for food. This goes on for 55 days until the chick hatches.
The penguin chick is then carried around on their parents’ feet for another 30 to 40 days until they’re big enough to keep themselves warm.
King chicks look so different from adults that if you didn’t know it, you’d think they were a totally different bird.
Early explorers, in fact, thought they were a different type of Antarctic penguin because they look so different – brown and woolly.
7) Emperor penguins
We finish off our list of penguin species in Antarctica with more about Emperor penguins.
We didn’t see Emperor penguins on our Antarctic cruise (nor did we expect to).
These epic birds are elusive. They’re difficult to view in the wild.
You have to do a longer expedition journey in the Weddell Sea or Ross Sea, or choose an Antarctic voyage specifically focused on visiting the Emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea (using helicopters from your ship to land on the island).
Emperor penguins are the only type of penguin that nests during the winter.
And like King penguins, they’re dedicated parents. But instead of sharing incubation duty, like the Kings, the dad does it all.
He incubates the egg laid by his partner after mating (the egg rests on his feet the whole time), while she goes off into the sea to fish and feed.
In the depths of the Antarctic winter, where temperatures drop to a bitter -40 C, he huddles for two months with other nearby males to keep warm – waiting for the egg to hatch. And during this time, he doesn’t eat at all!
Then when the egg hatches, the mom returns to look after chick, and the dad can finally go off and feed.
Emperor penguins live to be about 15 to 20 years old.
Now you know lots about the types of penguins in Antarctica!
With your new penguin knowledge, you can impress your friends next time you’re playing a trivia game. Or perhaps you’ll even be inspired to see penguins in the wild on an expedition cruise?
If we return to Antarctica – turning our trip-of-a-lifetime into “two-trips-of-a-lifetime” – we’d also like to go to South Georgia to see the royal King penguins.
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Photo credits: 4, 6, 8, 11, 13 to 17 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase