From Susan K Woodruff

"You can't not be happy around penguins. You're unfortunately happy and cold, but the happiness makes up for the coldness.” Carla Gugino That quote is true for the majority of the species, but there are always exceptions to the rule!"

Since retiring a few years ago, I have found that I love traveling to new and exciting places, and I love all types of wildlife … especially birds. There is an amazing diversity of birds around the globe, and it is critical that with climate change we do all we can to protect them from their biggest danger - man. I have seen penguins in zoos, but since penguins are not present in the northern hemisphere, I’ve not seen any in the wild. All penguin species reside in the southern hemisphere. It wasn’t until my first trip to Antarctica in 2022 that I got “penguin fever.” I had no idea that there were so many penguin species! I returned to Antarctica to satisfy my penguin passion in 2023, and also was lucky enough to visit the Galapagos Islands in 2024 where I saw the northernmost species of penguin, the Galapagos Penguin.

In the rest of this article, I will share some of my personal experiences and photos of these magnificent, comical birds.

Magellanic Penguins (Chiloe Island, Chile)

In February 2019, I traveled to Patagonia and visited both Argentina and Chile. It was in southern Chile that I saw my first penguins in the wild. I didn’t own a decent camera then; I just relied on my iPhone, and that is when I resolved to get a better camera! This species is one of four that live in temperate climates of the southern hemisphere. Scientists consider the population of Magellanic Penguins to be of “least concern.” A new colony was discovered in 2020 when scientists were studying a colony of Rockhoppers. Magellanic Penguins generally have two eggs which hatch several days apart. They are considered to be “good parents.” Their job is to get food for young penguin chicks. It appears that the parents feed both chicks equally if the younger chick survives the first few weeks.

In November of 2022, I set out on an Antarctic Expedition with Quark called “Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings.” “Explorers” refers to Ernest Shackleton, probably the most famous Antarctic explorer, and “Kings” refers to the King Penguin. Our first stop was the Falkland Islands where we spent two days exploring the town of Port Stanley and the wildlife there.

Rockhopper Penguins (Falkland Islands)

We got up close and personal with our first species of penguin called the Rockhopper Penguin. The Falkland Islands are nesting grounds for one of the sub-species called the Southern Rockhopper. Penguins of this species live on the sub-Antarctic Islands. (The Northern Rockhopper lives in South Africa and islands south of Africa.) The Rockhoppers are one of the smaller species weighing in at between 5 and 10 pounds and generally about 18 inches tall. They are gregarious little guys who love to jump around rocky, craggy surfaces. The average lifespan of Rockhoppers is 10 years, but they can live up to 30 years. The biggest threat to their survival is climate change, pollution, and loss of habitat. We observed the Rockhoppers nesting among a group of nesting Black-browed Albatrosses. We loved their yellow crests and their adorable little faces.

King Penguins (South Georgia Island)

The next stop on our expedition was four days in and around South Georgia Island. South Georgia Island is not populated except for a research station where scientists come from around the world to do research. There is a small museum and post office that is staffed by the South Georgia Heritage Trust during the short summer months. The island is most known for the site where Sir Ernest Shackleton landed to get help for his crew, and which also hosts the explorer’s grave.

The other claim to fame for this island is that it is home of hundreds of thousands of King Penguins. King Penguins are the second largest species of penguin. The Emperor Penguin is the largest and looks very similar to the King Penguin. These big guys can weigh up to 38 pounds and are approximately 3 feet tall. They have a very long breeding cycle of 14 - 16 months. Their funny-looking chicks stay with their parents until they are well over a year old and moult the first time. For a year these chicks resemble “Cousin Itt” from the show, The Addams Family. (If you are old enough to remember.) The chicks are covered in a brown downy coat that is not waterproof, and they would not survive on their own. The King Penguin couple only has one egg each year, and both parents tend to the egg and offspring. The climate in the winter is very harsh, so they need the protection of their parents.

King Penguins have no fear of human beings. Each time we landed on the island or were in zodiacs close to the shore, there always seemed to be a welcoming party waiting to greet us. What fun it was spending several hours with these amazing flightless seabirds. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Macaroni Penguins (South Georgia Island)

We saw another species of penguin when visiting the island that resembles the Rockhopper, but slightly larger. Both species are some of the smaller Antarctic penguins. Like their fellow species, the Macaronis have red eyes, and they come ashore in the summer to breed. The Macaroni Penguins also have a distinctive crest, but it is longer and more orangeish with black feathers. The females usually lay two eggs with both parents tending the egg. They lay their eggs in the rocky cliffs and outcroppings of the sub-Antarctic islands. It is rare that the second egg hatches. Adults can lose up to half their body weight during this cycle as they tend the eggs.

Adélie Penguins (Antarctica)

These penguins were one of my favorites. They are the smallest of the Antarctic penguins and are an important food source for Leopard Seals and Orcas. They eat krill and other small sea animals. The Adélies are feisty and fearless. We encountered a large breeding population on a very rocky beach. Both parents sit on and protect the egg and take turns procuring food. The Adélie chicks can stay onshore after about three weeks on their own; the chicks huddle together in a creche to stay warm. Both parents can go in search of food at this point. The chicks cannot enter the water until they fully moult and get their adult feathers which takes 7 - 9 weeks. The chicks won’t return to the breeding colony until they are at least 3 years old. These penguins can live 15 - 20 years. Their distinguishing mark for identification is the white circle around their eyes. I enjoyed watching them hop around with their friends and play in the water. They were willing to get up close and personal with the visiting humans, which was great fun!

Gentoo Penguins (Antarctica)

There are currently two subspecies of Gentoo Penguins, but scientists believe that with the significant adaptation to warmer climates, that the differences constitute enough DNA evidence to classify them into four distinct subspecies. I was able to observe Gentoos of both types: the photos of penguins with the green background are the northernmost variety. The photos with snow and ice in the background are the southernmost subspecies. These little guys are extremely acrobatic and are the fastest swimmers of all penguins. They dive up to 450 times a day for food and can hold their breath for up to 7 minutes during a dive. They are social and gregarious living in large colonies.

Chinstrap Penguins (Antarctica)

Chinstraps are one of my favorite penguins. I love their distinctive look! Unfortunately for me, we did not find a breeding colony to visit, but I did get a good photo of one. These penguins are highly social and live mostly in Antarctica or the islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean. They are very social creatures. These penguins share parenting responsibilities like the rest of the species of penguins. Most of the chinstraps lay two eggs, and they hatch after 37 days. These chicks will leave their parent’s protection after approximately 32 - 35 days, but will not become sexually mature and reproduce until they are between 3 and 7 years old. These remarkable creatures live to be between 15 and 20 years old.

Emperor Penguins (Snow Hill Island, Antarctica)

I fell in love with Antarctica the first time I visited, and I resolved that I had to go on another expedition to find Emperor Penguins. These are the largest species of penguin and were made famous by the movie “March of the Penguins.” These penguins survive in the extremely harsh conditions of an Antarctic winter. One egg is laid and both parents guard and protect the egg and chick taking turns to return to the sea to get food. The parents can lose up to one-half of their body weight during the time they are protecting the young. These are the tallest and heaviest of the penguins at almost four feet tall and 70 to 90 pounds. They look similar to the King Penguin, but larger and not quite as colorful. Due to an injury, I was not able to make the trek to the rookery on Snow Hill Island, but luckily a couple of adult Emperors waddled across the sea ice to greet our ship. I may have to return one more time to make that trek to see the chicks. Time will tell! Birds are a relative of dinosaurs, and you can certainly see the resemblance when looking at a pair of penguin feet!

Galapagos Penguins (Fernandina & Isabella Islands, Galapagos)

On a trip to the Galapagos Islands in January of 2024, I was able to add the 9th penguin species to my life list. This penguin has perhaps adapted the most to challenging conditions. It is hypothesized that either a few Magellanic or Humboldt Penguins made their way north from Chilean waters on some detritus in the waters and landed or swam to one of the outcroppings of the archipelago.

Since penguins gave up flight millions of years ago to become expert swimmers and divers, they were able to survive because they eat krill, squid, and other sea life. These penguins had to adapt to much warmer waters and that is why it is easy to see more exposed skin on the birds. They are the second smallest penguins, and they have one of the most vulnerable populations. The penguins, boobies, pelicans, and gulls all get along famously and don’t compete for food. Food is plentiful for all of Mother Nature’s unique birds of the Galapagos as the waters are teeming with life.

Reflecting while writing, I find myself so grateful to be healthy enough to travel and for having the means to travel. It has renewed my commitment to the Earth and supporting projects and organizations that serve to protect our natural world. I’ve found that traveling and birding go hand-in-hand … I’ve seen half of the 18 penguin species after only a few years.

Knowing I have a purpose when heading to a new locale, helps me enjoy the trip even more. I think everyone smiles when they see a penguin, as they have become a symbol of cheer and happiness around the holidays. Seeing these funny little guys in person is one of the highlights of my life. I am looking forward to traveling to South Africa in 2025 when I will be able to check a few more species of penguins off my list!
April 23, 2024 — Susan K Woodruff


Kaye Sheaffer said:

Sue, I feel you can call yourself a writer. I have experienced so many wonderful adventures through your travels. Love the way you share your expeditions. Once an educator always…

Leave a comment