.March of the Penguins


On the Antarctic continent there are 5 species of penguin that someone might see… and we were lucky enough to see – and smell- 4; Adélie, Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni. I didn’t go to the Antarctic with any idea about how these dopey little surf and turf birds behaved and had no expectation that we would see them at all – but I ended up leaving learning more than I would have expected! Observation in the field paired with knowledge and presentations by our onboard Penguinologist left me understanding their feeding behaviours, breeding rituals and things that scientists still don’t completely understand.

In truth, they really are silly little birds… they’ll jump in and out of the water like skipping rocks, diving every once in a while to search for fish and krill. They’re hunted by seals and whales and are aware of the danger most of the time, which probably explains their skiddish behaviour. Penguins are also pretty consistent and walk on the same paths over and over within their colonies to create little ‘penguin highways’ in the snow! One of my favourite parts about watching them on land is that they will waddle around and if they somehow manage to trip and fall onto their bellies, they seem to “play it cool” and continue to slide along on their belly as if that was their intention in the first place.

We saw so many penguins.

Hundreds. Of. Penguins.

Summer in the Antarctic is the penguin breeding season so the penguins were quite busy laying on their roosts and incubating eggs. They’re noisy little buggers who don’t mind their guano (poo) covered living conditions and could be found sliding around in it on their bellies before standing up, covered in a reddish brown color. Like I said, these birds are special. Those pictures that National Geographic posts with all white bellies? Heavily sifted through to ensure maximum enjoyment by the audience.

While roosting, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins (the only ones we saw breeding) will lay with their bellies over their eggs to keep them warm. It’s a partnered situation and while one parent roosts, the other collects food to later regurgitate (yum!) or collects rocks to continue to build up the roost. Just like human couples withhold an agreement with the presentation of a rock, penguin couples do the same. Pretty cute!

For a penguin, these roosts are very important and the bigger the roost, the better. Our family sat and watched as one penguin stole a rock from a neighbouring roost, brought it back to its partner’s roost, did a little head nod of approval at enlarging the roost and then left to continue the process. All the while, rocks were being stolen from that couples’ own roost. Oh silly little penguins…

Can you find the macaroni penguin?

Adélie Penguins

Photo by Andrew Shiva

Unfortunately, I wasn’t lucky enough to get too close to the Adélie penguins but I did see them through binoculars from afar. With a black head and light eye, these special penguins are conservationally ‘near threatened’ and are slowly increasing in population. Very slowly. I watched them hang out on this iceberg for a while and shuffle over to the edge before taking a little leap of faith and jumping into the dark waters below. It was very entertaining to watch because the penguins seemed to get into a single file line and make sure it worked out for the penguin in front before daring to jump in themselves. As the penguin would get closer and closer to the water and the iceberg began to slope downward, the penguin would eventually grow top heavy and fall forward before catching itself and attempting to make a graceful dive mid-air… it was rarely graceful.

Gentoo Penguins

These cute little guys were our most common penguin friend. We saw them nesting, covered in guano, and on our last day, with little chicks! The first time we saw them it was in the snow and our Penguinologist unfortunately broke the news that snow is not a good thing for Penguin eggs, that most likely, there would be very few chicks actually born in this years colony for that location. We watched some skua birds steal and eat eggs while the parents didn’t do much to defend… maybe they sort of knew that the incubation didn’t go well? These penguins were very loud and very active – and since they were the first ones we observed they were also our first snippet of the penguin world.

We would see gentoo penguins the most on the trip with the most up close and personal encounter on our final excursion. The penguins and humans walked amongst each other (of course at a distance) and I was able to observe them for a longer period of time and more close up than I had before. I watched parents feeding chicks that were snuggled up tight to their parent’s abdomen and I saw parents take turns to go fishing in the nearby ocean.

A week after we left and I found myself researching the animals we saw in the antarctic. While searching about penguins I found this incredible Australian article about gay penguins that kept me smiling and remembering my little friends. Enjoy!

Yes, that IS a whale vertebra. Whale ribs and vertebrae scattered along a beach? Thrilling.

Chinstrap Penguin

These lil’ gangsters live harmoniously with gentoo’s and, as I observed, were particularly fond of swimming and preening. They’re also a bit more aggressive than the gentoo penguins, flapping their wings more and making vocal calls that were much louder and harsher than the others. We witnessed some of their little chicks too!

Macaroni Penguin

While on land for that final excursion I noticed a small group of people at the end of one colony. As it turns out, the Penguinologist on site had noticed a lone Macaroni penguin amongst the Gentoo colony! This Macaroni penguin is a juvenile so it needs another molt before the yellow crest is more obvious, but it was interesting to observe the serene penguin as it stood silent in the crowd of Gentoos.

Penguins are so funny to watch and they are obviously not one of the smartest birds in the world. Which is sort of endearing in a way. They slide around in their own guano, poo all over eachother, live within colonies of other types of penguin without a second thought and their movements when they flop onto the snow, jump onto ice, or dive into water left me cracking up for hours. I’m definitely leaving Antarctica with a new appreciate for the special wildlife that lives there.

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