Penguins are the animals most famously associated with Antarctica. They are also one of the most distinctive and beloved of all bird families. They endear themselves to us with their stylish black-and-white coloration, adorable waddling gait, and comical gesticulations of their flightless wings. Visitors to Antarctica will surely find many reasons to love these amazing seabirds during countless penguin encounters. Most commonly seen around the Antarctic Peninsula are the three closely related penguins of the genus Pygoscelis, collectively known as the "brush-tailed penguins".Though unable to take aerial flight, these large to medium-sized penguins fly through the water using slender wings like flippers and a stiff brush-like tail as a rudder. Every summer they return to their breeding colonies to raise chicks in nests made of pebbles, which they knavishly steal from one another. The antics of these resourceful and tireless penguins are never boring. Read on to learn more about the penguins you can encounter on a cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula.
Like all brush-tailed penguins, gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) have black backs, mostly black heads, and white bellies. Gentoos are distinguished by a triangular white flash above each eye. Bright orange feet and red “lips” add a splash of color to these jaunty penguins. They are gregarious birds that do not stray far from their breeding areas, even in winter. Their colonies often overlap with those of other brush-tailed penguins, but gentoo nests are generally found on lower ground, closer to shore. It is a joy to see them waddling en masse to and from the sea on daily foraging trips. Gentoo penguins are common in the South Shetland Islands and western Antarctic Peninsula. They also breed in South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
The chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis Antarctica) is named for the black line drawn from ear to ear across its white throat. Chinstraps are agile climbers, sometimes using their bill as an ice axe, and prefer nesting sites higher up on rocky slopes and headlands. On their nests, these feisty birds stand their ground and can become aggressive if approached too closely. Away from their nests, they are social and very inquisitive. When returning after foraging, adults put on a good show by leading their hungry chicks on a frantic chase through the colony before feeding them. Colonies are sometimes very large. The colony at Baily Head on Deception Island, in the South Shetland Islands, has about 100,000 breeding pairs. Such colonies are extremely noisy; chinstraps give louder and more frequent calls than other brush-tailed penguins. The chinstrap penguin is common around the Antarctic Peninsula and there is a small population in South Georgia.
The Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) was named by French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville in honor of his wife. With their classic tuxedoed plumage, Adélies are arguably the dapper of penguins. They have vivid white rings around their eyes, which they use to great effect when staring down aggressors. The sternness of their expression is undercut somewhat by the comedy of their waddling gait, which is exaggerated by their short legs. Large groups of Adélies can be seen jumping all at once into the water from ice ledges and vigorously leaping back up again after feeding trips. Adélie colonies are found exclusively on or near the continent of Antarctica, where they are a favorite prey of leopard seals.
In addition to abundant brush-tailed penguins, other types of penguins may be encountered on your cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. The macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus), a stocky penguin with striking golden “eyebrows” and a thick red bill, is a rare breeder in the South Shetland Islands. Vagrant king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) are occasionally encountered, as are wide-ranging juvenile emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri). The wide cast of penguin characters is sure to leave a lifelong impression during your dream vacation to Antarctica!