8 penguin species you need to know before travelling to Antarctica

Wednesday, 20th April 2022

Destination Specialist

antarctica gentoo penguin pair istk

Penguins are the icon of Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. They provide a huge draw for those visiting this extraordinary part of the world and their status as consummate charmers is richly deserved.

Wildlife by its very definition is unpredictable, however, there are certain areas of Antarctica and the sub-Antarctics where unforgettable encounters with specific penguin species is not only highly likely, its inevitable.


antarctica adelie penguin pair istk

Where: South Shetlands, Antarctic Peninsula, coastal Antarctica
Cruise Options: on any cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula

This is a true Antarctic penguin, being the only species other than the emperor that breeds on the Antarctic Continent during the Austral summer. Endearing large button eyes and predominantly black bill are the distinguishing features of this very sociable and expressive penguin.

Often spotted on icebergs or on rocky shores, Adélie penguins form large nesting rookeries in the South Shetland and South Orkney islands, as well as other islands near the Antarctic Peninsula. The largest colonies can be found at Cape Adare, Adélie Land, Cape Royds, Cape Crozier and Hope Bay.


antarctic chinstrap penguin pf

Where: South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula
Cruise Options: on any cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula

Named for the strap-like marking that wraps under their beak this distinctive penguin typically inhabits the Scotia Sea area between the sub-Antarctic South Shetland Islands and the Peninsula. They are most common in the Sandwich Islands, South Shetland Islands, South Orkney Islands, and South Georgia. Similar in height to the Adelie, chinstraps are often found amongst colonies of the former as well as gentoo.

With an estimated population of over 18 million, chinstrap penguins form huge nesting colonies, sometimes covering entire mountain slopes.


antarctica wildlife gentoo penguin istk

Where: South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia, Falklands
Cruise Options: on any cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia

With a vivid orange beak and orange feet, this ubiquitous bird is a fastidious nest builder gathering pebbles for the purpose. Commonly seen around the South Shetland Islands and higher latitudes of the Peninsula as well as South Georgia and the Falklands, this is the third-largest penguin. Gentoos breed in smaller colonies on rocky hillsides amidst tussock grass or on beaches.

Equally at home on snow-covered mountain slopes on the Antarctic Peninsula or the sandy beaches of the Falkland Islands, gentoo penguins are easily identified by the white stripe above their eyes – but they also have distinctively long tails, which has led to their alternative name of brush-tailed penguin.


antarctica emperor penguin couple istk

Where: Snow Hill Island, Weddell Sea, Ross Sea

The largest and most iconic of all, the emperor penguin is the only species to nest on the sea ice and is also the most elusive. Individuals can be seen on the Peninsula, but sightings tend to be rare.

Emperors reach around 120cm (4ft) in height and are renowned for enduring one of the most gruelling breeding cycles in the animal kingdom. They only breed on the Antarctic continent. For the best chance of encounters join voyages to Weddell Sea side of the Peninsula and Snow Hill Island or a longer semi-circumnavigation voyage.


south georgia king penguin colony astk

Where: South Georgia, Falklands, Macquarie Island
Cruise Options: longer cruises taking in Falklands, South Georgia & the Peninsula (see Antarctica Wildlife Holidays)

The second-largest penguin is found in the sub-Antarctics only. Bearing a resemblance to the emperor penguin, this species can be distinguished by the vibrant orange patch on the back of head and neck. King chicks are unmistakably covered with dark brown down feathers. The vast rookeries of South Georgia, including St Andrews Bay, offer truly one of the most impressive spectacles in the world of wildlife.


chile patagonia magellanic penguins istock

Where: Falklands
Cruise Options:  longer cruises taking in Falklands, South Georgia & the Peninsula

Found in the Falklands and the sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand as well as the higher latitudes of southern Chile and Argentina, magellanic penguins are notoriously nervous and nest in burrows on beaches and sand dunes. They are not to be confused with the similar African and Humboldt penguins.


falkland islands pair of rockhopper penguins istk

Where: Falklands
Cruise Options:  longer cruises taking in Falklands, South Georgia & the Peninsula

The smallest of the eccentric-looking crested penguin family, there are three subspecies of ‘rockhopper’, including the southern rockhopper penguin, which can be found nesting on rocky ground in the Falkland Islands. Pronounced yellow eyebrows and deep red eyes offer this breed a quirky look as they traverse the rocks around the coastline.

Like all penguins, they are superb swimmers, but once ashore, these nimble little penguins are also adept at scaling cliffs to reach their rookeries.


south georgia macaroni penguin astk

Where: South Georgia, South Shetlands
Cruise Options:  longer cruises taking in South Georgia

The only other crested penguin not endemic to New Zealand or its sub-Antarctic islands, the macaroni is very similar to the rockhopper, but is significantly taller and has a larger red bill. Covering a wide range, this is the second largest of the crested species.

These eye-catching birds are named after the flamboyantly dressed group of 18th century aristocrats, the ‘Macaronis’. With a global population of around 12 million, one of their sub-Antarctic strongholds is the island of South Georgia.

And Beyond

penguins australasia montage

Beyond the shores of the Great White Continent, New Zealand and Australia also boast several species of penguin, including the world’s smallest.

  • Yellow-eyed (Chathams Islands | Dunedin, New Zealand)
  • Fiordland-crested (Fiordland & West Coast, New Zealand)
  • Little blue (Chatham Islands | Oamaru, New Zealand | Phillip Island & WA, Australia)

Find out more about Antarctic Wildlife

Antarctic Holidays

To start planning your own Antarctic adventure, view our collection of holidays including cruises and land-based island hopping options in the Falklands. Alternatively, get in touch with our Polar Travel Specialists to discuss your options on 01737 214 250 or send an enquiry.

See all Antarctic holidays

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