Penguins of Antarctica

7th September 2015

Unlike the Arctic, connected by land to three continents, animals in Antarctica must be able to fly or swim to reach the ice: and over hundreds of miles of stormy ocean. But remarkably, animals do exist here and are scientifically termed ‘extremophiles’, which we think is a very hard-core sounding nickname to have.

Antarctica can boast seven types of seal, including the enormous and blubbery elephant seal. Puffins and albatross, dolphins and spectacular whales, including orca roam the seas and skies. Arguably less cuddly are the over thousand species of fungi and schools of krill which provide a key food source within the continent’s ecosystem.

But one animal encapsulates our Antarctic imaginings more than any other.

Star of the silver screen in recent years, even obtaining the highest honour of receiving a voice-over from Morgan Freeman, it’s the penguin.

There are 17 species of penguin on the planet and 6 of them find their home on the Antarctic ice. We’re going to teach you your gentoos from your emperors so you can impress even your guide should you embark on this epic expedition…


Smartly attired in a fluffy tuxedo, the Adélie penguin is named after Adélie Land, a portion of the distant continent named by French explorer Jules Dumond d’Urville for his wife. These small penguins are common along the entire Antarctic coast, dive as deep as 575 feet and swim as fast as 45 miles per hour!


Not hard to understand their name when you see the strange looking narrow black band below their face, other names you’ll hear for them are “bearded penguins” and “ringed penguins”. They live on icebergs or small, barren islands and are said to be the boldest, and most aggressive of the bird.


The mighty emperor penguin: the most famous and often depicted of the lot. Also the tallest and heaviest, standing just over 4 feet tall yet weighing up to over 7 stone. Emperors are the only penguin to breed during the Antarctic winter, they trek 31 to 75 miles over the ice to reach breeding colonies where females lay just one egg, which the males then incubate while the females return to the sea to feed. It is thought that some individual emperors may live to fifty years old!


Gentoos are recognisable by white strips on their heads, red-orange bills and having the longest tail of all penguin types, trailing behind them and sweeping side by side. They build nests from stones, sticks, grass and feathers. The species are now sadly “near threatened”, with big declines in numbers.


The ultimate surfer dudes with floppy, blond hair; when English sailors came across these penguins with their distinct yellow crest during the 18th century, Macaroni was the easy choice for name, after "Maccaronism" - a contemporary term for a particular style in England marked by flamboyancy and excessive ornamentation. They also have red eyes and a red bill and, although they were once the most common penguin, their numbers are also in decline.


The world’s smallest penguin at about 20 inches tall, these rockhoppers rock inquisitive feathered eyebrows with distinctive yellow and black decorative eyelashes. This affords them a mini evil genius resemblance, which perhaps was the inspiration for the pesky characters in the film Madagascar. Can anybody say small-penguin-syndrome?

Read more about the region, explore our tailor-made holidays to Antarctica and to walk among penguins we recommend our Spirit of Shackleton journey.

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