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An Audience with Kings in South Georgia

How to Have a Perfect Penguin Encounter

A hundred thousand glossy penguin bodies riding the surf onto a broad beach, crowding onto a vast green plain, wading across turquoise rivers and climbing into grassy hills with glaciers and snowy peaks all around—your first sight of a king penguin colony is an experience never to be forgotten. In contrast with the sleek plumage of the adults, countless shaggy brown balls of fluff represent the next generation in the long line of kings in South Georgia. The hustle and bustle of this most peculiar royal court can be overwhelming at first, but a little information and guidance will help you have a satisfying and respectful encounter with these regal birds and their adorable chicks on your South Georgia cruise.

The Island Where a Penguin is King

The subantarctic island of South Georgia is home to four regularly breeding penguin species: king, macaroni, gentoo and chinstrap. Among these, the king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica) is immediately recognized by its large size and its striking slate-gray and white plumage with golden throat and orange ear patches. King penguins are also conspicuous by the enormous size of their colonies. The total number of king penguins breeding in South Georgia is over 450,000 pairs, with the largest colonies numbering 150,000 pairs at St Andrews Bay and 60,000 pairs at Salisbury Plain. Their numbers are actually increasing as new colonies become established around the island.

Continuing The Dynasty

Unique among penguin species, king penguin rookeries are occupied throughout the year. Their breeding cycle is 14 months from courtship to fledging of the chick. Like its close relative the emperor penguin, the king penguin does not build a nest but carries its single egg on its feet under a fold of skin. Eggs are laid in the early summer, from November to mid-January. At the end of this period, the first chicks are already hatching. Parents take turns feeding and brooding the chick for the first six weeks, after which both parents feed the chick continuously through the summer. During the winter, from May to August, the downy brown chicks huddle in groups called crèches while relying on their fat reserves. Feeding resumes in the spring and chicks start going to sea in late-September. With their chicks gone, parents also go to sea to replenish their fat reserves for several months before returning to shore to molt and begin the breeding cycle again, usually with a new mate. In this way, king penguins can raise two chicks every three years. As a result of this unique breeding pattern, summer visitors will likely see adults with eggs, small and large chicks, as well as molting and courtship on the same visit.

Guidance For Royal Encounters

Having no natural predators on land, king penguins do not flee from the approach of human beings. Some penguins—older chicks in particular—can even be curious of people. However, these animals are not invulnerable to disturbance and care needs to be taken to avoid stressing them. The best practice for having great encounters with king penguins is to approach the edge of a penguin group slowly and quietly and to stop at a respectful distance. If the penguins react to your presence, then you are too close and you should back away. Choose a place that does not block the penguins’ right of way and stay quiet and still, preferably sitting, so that they can pass by or even approach you without themselves feeling crowded or threatened by you. It is alright if penguins come right up to you but you must not entice them in any way. It is forbidden to offer food to penguins or any other animal in South Georgia. You must never reach out to touch a penguin as this may cause significant stress to the animal. You should also avoid using flash photography. As always, follow the advice and heed the warnings of your expedition staff. And remember to soak up every detail of your encounter with these beautiful and graceful creatures, as it will surely become one of your most treasured memories.

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