There is a group of birds that every wildlife lover will want to see at least once in their lives and that’s penguins. There are many penguin species to be found around the world and a lot of them can be encountered on a wildlife trip.
Because their main predators – sharks, orcas, seals and sea lions – are all ocean-based, penguins are not so wary of land-based animals and so tend to approach visitors more readily to give them a curious once-over.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Liam Quinn – King Penguin
12 Places to Take a Wildlife Trip and See Different Penguin Species
Penguins are a group of aquatic flightless birds living almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere. The only penguin species to breed north of the equator is the Galapagos Penguin, found on Isabela Island in Ecuador.
Around the world you can see many different species of penguins. If penguins are on your holiday shopping list, investigate wildlife tours to:
- South Africa
- Falkland Islands
- South Georgia
- New Zealand
Want to see penguins in the wild?
If you would like to visit a penguin colony, wildlife trips can be arranged through many of the Blue Sky Wildlife local specialist tour operators.
Facts About What Makes Penguins Special
- Barbs rather than teeth line the inside of the animals’ beaks and throats help them to swallow fish without having to break them up.
- When they take to the sea penguins first jump into the air before plunging beneath the waves. This action drives air bubbles out of their feathers and that cuts down on drag and enables them to swim faster.
- Unlike other birds that need light bones to enable them to fly, penguins have very dense bones to help them sink.
- A penguin’s short legs work well underwater to propel them around, but on an icy landscape they are a hindrance to speedy movement. Instead of waddling in a slow awkward fashion, then, many of the larger species will fall onto their bellies and ‘toboggan’ their way across the ice, pushing themselves along with their feet.
- Their black and white livery does make them stand out when they come out of the water to breed or moult on ice, snow and sandy, rocky shorelines. But the dark and light colouring of all penguin species is designed to camouflage them from predators in their main habitat – the ocean. Their grey or black backs help them blend with the water if seen from above and the white undersides disguise them against the sky if seen from below.
- Although they will drink fresh water from snow melt or rain-fed pools on land, penguins do ingest a lot of seawater as they feed. To reduce the salt content of their blood they have a special gland just above their eyes that sifts it out. They then sneeze it out of their nostrils.
Top 12 Penguin Species (and Where to Find Them)
This penguin species is the second largest and similar in appearance to Emperor Penguins (see separate entry further below). Kings are found in the Antarctic, the Falklands, South Georgia and southern Argentina. This large penguin stands around 70cm tall (2.25ft) and can weigh up to 40kg (88lb). King Penguins are famous for their extensive courtship displays which include singing, bowing, bill-clapping, petting and ‘jaw-waving’.
Photo Credit: Raffaele Di Biase, BirdsChile, King Penguins
They can be seen performing these displays between September and November. Their eggs are incubated for around eight weeks, with the parents taking turns, and then the chicks are guarded for another five weeks until they are large enough to be left alone. All the chicks in the colony band together in creches, looked after by a small number of adults while the others are in the ocean foraging.
Want to see King Penguins? Head for the Falklands, South Georgia, Argentina and Chile.
These penguins can be from other penguin species by their stark black and white coloration, white eye ring round a dark eye and pink feet. They were named after Adéle Dumont d’Urville, the wife of a French explorer who first found and described the penguins in 1840 in Antarctica.
Adélies are a small species, around 68cm (27in) tall and 5.5kg (12lb), and quite sprightly. They can walk many miles to their colonies when they come ashore but they are most adapted to life in the water with their torpedo-shaped bodies.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Liam Quinn – Adélie Penguin
This penguin species spends the winter at sea; in the Antarctic summer they can be found along the coasts of the continent. They are excellent swimmers, using their stubby wings to propel themselves through the waves at around five miles an hour. They can soar out of the water to a height of 3 metres (10ft) to reach land.
Adélies build nests out of a ring of small pebbles along the ice-free shoreline in the Antarctic and hatch their eggs in December, which is spring in the region. Both parents care for the chicks, which are independent after only three weeks. These feisty birds will protect their youngsters vigorously, taking on predators such as Southern Giant Petrels many times their size.
Want to see Adélie Penguins? Head for New Zealand and Antarctica.
African or Cape Penguin
This medium-sized penguin is only found on the southwestern coast of Africa and is the only penguin species to breed in that continent. Their black and white livery is distinguished by a necklace of black feathers breaking up the speckled white of their breasts. They have black feet and sport a pink crescent of bare skin above the eye. These patches are sweat glands that help the animal stay cool when blood is sent to the area to be cooled by the air. The hotter the temperature, the pinker the crescent becomes.
Photo Credit: Leon Marais, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris, African Penguin
Cape Penguins feed mainly on anchovies in the seas off southern Africa, usually within 12 miles of the shore. On land they make themselves obvious by their loud donkey-like braying calls. They lay their eggs in burrows or, if the ground is too hard, in scrapes in the sand under the overhang of bushes. When they have their waterproof feathers the chick leave the land to spend up to two years at sea before returning to the colonies to moult into adult plumage. They then return to the sea until it is time to breed.
This penguin species is the third largest in the world, recognisable by its white ‘headband’ that joins the eyes across the top of its head and is surrounded by a speckling of white dots. This develops as the bird matures. It also has a bright orange beak and peachy-orange feet. And it has the longest tail of any penguin species.
Photo Credit: Flickr – dfaulder – a juvenile Gentoo Penguin
Gentoos are also the fastest swimmers of all species of penguins, able to travel at around 20 miles per hour. They nest in grassy tussocks, sometimes many miles inland, where they assemble small stones to make a protective ring. As stones of a suitable size can be difficult to find in that environment those collected are jealously guarded and can be the cause of fierce territorial disputes. These arguments and posturing can be accompanied by loud trumpeting, making a large colony a noisy place to be near!
This is one of the smallest of penguin species and endemic to the Galápagos Islands in northern South America. They are the only penguins living north of the Equator; the chilly Humboldt Current that flows past the islands creates an appropriate marine environment for them to live and hunt in.
Photo Credit: Think Galapagos, Galápagos Penguin
Because their habitat is so much warmer than is experienced by other penguin species, Galápagos have evolved techniques to help them to keep cool. One of these involves extending their wings and bending over to protect their feet from the sun. They also employ panting to shed heat by evaporation from their throats and mouths. This species breeds on the islands all year round, laying their eggs in caves along the volcanic rocky shoreline, a practice that also helps to protect their eggs from the more extreme heat of the sun. The birds mate for life and raise their chicks together.
Want to see Galápagos Penguins? Head for Ecuador.
This medium-sized penguin looks very similar to the African or Cape Penguin. However, the neck band is wider and the pink at the bill encircles the whole base of the beak, rather than being positioned just above the eye. It has the same braying call as the African that it uses during courtship displays. These displays take the form of a pair bowing to each other and eyeing their partner from each side of their heads in turn. When things get more serious, this penguin species throws back its head and flaps its wings while giving loud calls. Their eggs are laid over a wide period, March to December with a peak in August and September, and they lay two clutches in burrows made into layers of guano.
Photo Credit: Raffaele Di Biase, BirdsChile, Humboldt Penguins
Humboldts hunt primarily by using their eyes. They forage after sunset and issue shallow dives to come upon their small fish prey from below, seeing them silhouetted against the moonlit sky. They moult their feathers from mid-January to mid-February, at which time they are confined to the land as they have no waterproofing.
The Emperor Penguin is the largest penguin species in the world, with adults weighing up to 45kg (99lb) and standing almost 1 metre (3.25ft) in height. They are well adapted to the harsh Antarctic environment with their thick coat of downy feathers and their well-developed swimming skills. Emperors have large lungs and can dive to considerable depths. The longest recorded dive for one of these birds came in at more than 20 minutes.
Photo Credit: Flickr – lin padgham – Emperor Penguins
They are the only animal to breed during the Antarctic winter. They trek miles into the icy interior of the continent to colonies where they gather to raise their young among thousands of other birds. In this extremely cold environment they have evolved to gather in very large groups for warmth. Within the groups the birds rotate their position, taking turns to be in the interior of the circle until they get too hot. At that point they edge their way to the outside of the circle to let the chilly outsiders take a turn inside the living duvet.
Males alone incubate their egg, tucked into a fold of skin above their feet, and while they are caring for the egg they do not feed. This means the weightier birds tend to be favoured by the females as they are more likely to be able to stay the course.
Want to see Emperor Penguins? Head for Antarctica.
Little Blue Penguin
At the other end of the scale to Emperors, Little Blues, or Fairy Penguins, are the smallest penguin species in the world, only about 40cm high. They live all around the coast of New Zealand and Tasmania and the southern coast of mainland Australia. The birds are nocturnal and live in groups close to their colonies. Unlike some of the other penguin species Little Blues make a nest underground, tunnelling into a sand bank and constructing a passageway and nest bowl just about high enough to stand up.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Peter – Little Blue Penguin
Although they are small they are feisty little birds and can be very vocal at night, each one communicating with its fellows with a sound unique to the individual. For about two weeks between mid-February and mid-March Little Blue Penguins moult so they are not at their most attractive at that time. Losing feathers limits their ability to catch their favourite foods of small fishes, squid and small octopuses so they also lose a lot of weight at that time.
This penguin species gets its name from the thin black line of feathers that runs under its bill and eyes as if it was a strap holding on its black head gear. It is a well-insulated species with a thick layer of blubber, dense feathering and specialised blood vessels in its legs and feet to enable it to cope with the freezing waters around Antarctica. These adaptations help when it comes to its foraging, because it is known to swim up to 50 miles away from the shore every day to hunt for krill.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Liam Quinn – Chinstrap Penguin
Chinstraps are the most numerous of the penguin species that live in the Antarctic. The largest known colony, on the South Sandwich Islands, contains 1.2 million breeding pairs. They tend to be very aggressive birds, which probably comes about from having to compete with so many others for space to bring up their chicks.
These near relatives of the African and Humboldt Penguins boast a double black chest band and a thin chin strap. Adult birds travel in flocks to forage for food and can dive to between 65ft and 165ft (between 20m and 50m) to find cuttlefish and squid. They also enjoy jellyfish, particularly species with prominent gonads, which are thought to contain a lot of nutrition.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Nick Athanas – Magellanic Penguin
Magellanics breed and raise their chicks between September and March, building their nests under bushes or in burrows. This penguin species mates for life with the males arriving first at the breeding colonies in southern Argentina, Chile and the Falklands to reclaim their nest site from the previous year. The pair recognise each other by their own distinctive voices. Both parents incubate the egg for two weeks at a time each and take turns providing food. After the chicks have fledged, the adults make their way north to feed in Peruvian and Brazilian waters.
This small penguin stands at only 50cm (20in) when it is fully grown. Its distinctive crest, which develops as the bird matures, sweeps backwards from the prominent white eye stripe and frames the punky feathers that stand upright on the top of its head. When the penguins are young their beaks are black, but as they reach adulthood they turn orange. Their red eyes are also a noticeable identification feature.
Photo Credit: Flickr – Brian Gratwicke – Rockhopper Penguin
Rockhoppers inhabit rocky shorelines and make their nests within grassy tussocks. Because they are widespread across the southern oceans their breeding times vary depending on where they are, with the northern ones laying their eggs a couple of months before the southern ones.
Although they eat small crustaceans, this penguin species’ preferred diet is krill for which they can dive up to 100m (330ft).
This penguin species has a similar yellow crest on its head to the Rockhopper but in this case it starts in the middle of its forehead and forms a crescent around the front of its head. These birds also stand slightly taller, at up to 70cm (28in), and lack the defined white eye stripe of Rockhoppers. The name Macaroni was coined by European sailors in the 18th century who discovered them on the Falkland Islands. They thought their showy head feathers were reminiscent of upper class dandies at home, fashionable young men with their flashy clothes and elaborate hairdos.
Photo Credit: Flickr – laikolosse – Macaroni Penguin
In the months leading up to their annual moult, Macaronis feed up to put on weight. This will tide them over while they sit on land for up to four weeks, unable to feed because their old feathers are being replaced by a new plumage that takes time to build up waterproofing. In common with some other penguin species they have the curious habit of swallowing small stones. These are thought to help them to dive to greater depths, acting like ballast, and also aid in grinding up the harder parts of their prey.
Want to see Macaroni Penguins? Head for Argentina.
Want to Arrange a Wildlife Trip that Includes Penguin Species?
Have a look at the many birding and wildlife watching trips to the Southern Hemisphere and the Galapagos on Blue Sky Wildlife where you can find colonies of different species of penguins and benefit from the services of an expert local guide.