Stories & Inspiration

The Seven Penguin Species in Antarctica and Where to See Them

Is there any creature so emblematic of Antarctica as the penguin? Seeing these endlessly charming birds is a true highlight of any trip to the Antarctic – watching them waddle their way to and from their rookeries, or dart like rockets through the waves when you’re out on the water.

Perfectly adapted to their environment, there are different seven species of penguin in Antarctica and the neighbouring Subantarctic islands such as South Georgia, from the diminutive gentoo busy stealing rocks from a neighbour’s nest in a crowded rookery, to the mighty emperors who brave the freezing dark of the Antarctic winter to raise their young.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to the seven penguin species of Antarctica and the Subantarctic and explore what life is like for them in this frozen corner of the planet. We’ll also reveal where you should go for a chance of spotting them on your own Antarctic cruise. 

Gentoo penguins

Of all the penguin species in Antarctica, the one that is most commonly seen by visitors is the gentoo penguin. They’re easily recognisable as they are only Antarctic penguin with a bright red-orange beak, which is set off with a neat white patch that stretches over the head like a pair of headphones. Gentoos are part of the sub-family of brushtail penguins, that comprises the smaller penguins.

Gentoo penguin in Antarctica
Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula

Gentoos are the most northerly breeding of the penguins that live in Antarctica. They thrive in the relatively mildness of the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, as well as being found as far north as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

Like all Antarctic penguins, gentoos live on a diet of krill and small fish. They can dive to nearly 500 feet (225 m) below the surface in search of food and are the fastest swimmers of any penguin species.

Gentoo penguins swimming
Gentoo penguins porpoising in the water

In Antarctica, gentoos prefer rocky areas to form their rookeries, and make simple nests from pebbles (but they’re nothing if not adaptable – in South Georgia nests are made from mud and tussac grass). Nesting takes place from November onward on the Peninsula, with chicks arriving around Christmas and fledging in March. Males and females co-parent, raising up to two chicks at a time.

Adelie penguins

Only two species of penguin in Antarctica can be regarded as true polar diehards, being found nowhere else on the planet. Adelies are one member of this select club and tick every penguin-shaped box with their classic black and white tuxedo plumage, with a simple white ring around the eye. Rather romantically (we hope), they were named by the French explorer Dumont d’Urville in 1837 in honour of his wife Adèle.

A pair of Adelie penguins

Adelies are the most widely distributed Antarctic penguin species: you can find them on the shores of every quarter of the continent. They’re heavily dependent on sea ice, so along the Peninsula you’ll tend to see them in small groups or as individuals, with their numbers (and likelihood of spotting them) increasing the further south you head.

Adelie Penguins
Adelie penguins on the move

The ice-choked Weddell Sea is great for seeing this Antarctic penguin species – Paulet Island in particular is home to a very large rookery. For the largest numbers of Adelies however, you’ll have to venture to the Ross Sea. At Cape Adare, the historic huts of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and Carsten Borchgrevink are surrounded by a rookery thought to number a staggering half a million birds.

Chinstrap penguins

The chinstrap penguins of Antarctica aren’t difficult to recognise, given their distinct facial markings that look like they’re wearing a tiny helmet, hence the name ‘chinstrap’. Early visitors to Antarctica a century ago called them ringed penguins for the same reason.

Chinstrap penguin
A chinstrap penguin

These Antarctica penguins are smaller and more slender than their fellow brushtail species the gentoo and Adelie. They’re also one of the noisiest and social of penguins and the rookeries are particularly raucous places, with chinstraps constantly throwing back their heads to bark and trumpet to their fellows.

Chinstraps aren’t just Antarctica penguins, as they can be found breeding in small numbers on South Georgia. They’re great heralds of the White Continent however, as they range far into the ocean and can often be seen perched on the first icebergs you’ll see crossing the Drake Passage or the Scotia Sea. Though rarely visited, the South Sandwich Islands are home to the greatest concentration of chinstraps: Zavodowski Island (an active volcano) is home to around 1.5 million of them.

Chinstrap penguins
Chinstrap penguins showing their love of climbing

Along the Peninsula, chinstraps are like gentoos in preferring largely ice-free waters. They’ll often use the strong claws on their feet to climb cliffs that look quite impassable for a flightless bird. But these places are this Antarctic penguin’s preferred nesting ground, as long as there are a few pebbles around to make a rough nest. This love of bare rock means that chinstraps are the last penguins to breed on the Peninsula, laying eggs from November to early December and raising chicks rapidly to have them fledged by February.

King penguins

King penguins are one of the most distinctive species of penguin you’ll find on a polar cruise. Tall and elegant, they’re incredibly handsome birds, with sleek grey suits and black heads topped off with side commas the colour of rick egg yolk.

King penguins on South Georgia
King penguins on South Georgia

Head to South Georgia to see kings: these aren’t strictly an Antarctic penguin but are found here in colonies that seem to defy the senses. King penguins breed on South Georgia in colonies that can be up to a quarter of a million birds strong, all set against a dramatic mountain backdrop. Seeing them densely gathered en masse on the beaches here is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles.

King penguins have a highly unusual breeding cycle. Instead of raising a chick or two every season, they stagger their calendar to raise two chicks every three years, with some chicks hatching early in the season and others hatching later. The upshot of this is that whatever time of year you visit, you are guaranteed to see chicks. Often called ‘woolly boys’ for their downy brown coats, king penguin chicks often resemble nothing more than giant kiwi fruits with beaks.

King penguins on South Georgia
King penguins at St Andrews Bay on South Georgia

King penguins can also be found in smaller numbers on the Falkland Islands, as well as a colony on Tierra del Fuego in Patagonia, but it’s South Georgia that offers the most unmissable experience.

Macaroni penguins

f one species of penguin could be described as a dandy, it has to be the macaroni penguin. They sport magnificent flaming yellow crests like comic eyebrows – a gaudiness that gives them their name, derived from the 18th century slang ‘macaroni’ for the foppish English gentlemen who brought back extravagant fashions from the Grand Tour in Italy.

Two Macaroni penguins
Macaroni penguins

Macaronis belong to the Subantarctic rather than being true penguins of Antarctica. They’re thought to be the most populous species of penguin in the world, and South Georgia is one of their strongholds. They also breed on Elephant Island and can be found in isolated spots in the South Shetland Islands.

Whenever you’re in macaroni territory, look high to find them as well as in the water. Their sharp claws make them formidable climbers, and they like to nest on the sides of cliffs.

Macaroni Penguins
Macaroni penguins challenging a skua on South Georgia

For reasons that biologists are still trying to understand, although macaroni penguins lay two eggs, one is around 40% smaller than the other and never hatches. Were an observer to come back in a million years or so, they might discover that macaroni penguins were making the transition from laying a clutch to just laying a single egg.

Rockhopper penguins

Whilst similar in appearance to the Macaroni penguin, Rockhoppers are distinguishable due to their black tufts mounted over wispy lemon-yellow crest feathers that swoop along the side of their heads. You won’t find this species in Antarctica however – rockhoppers range widely across the Subantarctic, with the best place to see them being the Falkland Islands.

Rockhopper penguin

Rockhoppers are very well-named. You won’t find them lolling around on the shoreline – they’re positive mountaineers, leaping out of the surf to hop up the crags to find the perfect cliffside location for their rookeries.

In the Falklands, you’ll very frequently find them nesting alongside black-browed albatrosses, especially in locations like West Point. The two species make quite the odd couple together – both perfectly adapted to their respective environments and yet ungainly on land.

Rockhopper penguin
Rockhopper penguin amid black-browed albatrosses on the Falkland Islands

Rockhoppers are the smallest species of penguin found in polar waters, standing less than two feet tall (55cm). They incubate two eggs but raise just one chick into adulthood, which typically fledge around February or March.

Emperor penguins

Finally, we come to the Antarctic penguin species that’s perhaps the most iconic of all, thanks to its starring role in movies like March of the Penguins and Happy Feet: the emperor penguin.

Two emperor penguins
Emperor penguins on the sea ice

Emperor penguins are the true masters of Antarctica’s wild environment. They’re hardy enough not just to be able to spend the long dark and unimaginably cold Antarctic out on the permanent sea ice without once going to sea for a meal, but to do so while incubating their eggs and raising their chick. No penguin on the planet is tougher than an emperor.

The love this species of penguin has for the sea ice means that it tends to be found in places where few Antarctic cruise ships are able to visit – don’t expect to run into any on a standard cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. Instead, choose an itinerary that goes to Snow Hill Island in the Weddell Sea where you’ll find their northernmost breeding colony on the continent.

Emperor penguin feeding chick
The emperor penguin colony at Snow Hill Island

Snow Hill’s emperor penguins are only accessible in November, but the rewards for getting there are immense: a colony of 10,000 emperors, with a parade of fluffy grey chicks that have overwintered to become waddling balls of impossible cuteness.

The hardiness and adaptability of Antarctica’s penguin species are truly admirable and their innate charisma makes them an enormous draw for travellers planning a trip to Antarctica. 

Here at Swoop Antarctica, we offer some of the world’s greatest wildlife-watching opportunities, onboard cruises that explore the vast landscapes and seas of the White Continent. With a passion for the continent’s native species, our team of experts can share their expertise on where you should visit to see the amazing penguin species of Antarctica.