Photo Story | Antarctica

Penguins: A Cast of Characters

© Dennis Minty

There are many species of penguin that you can see on an Antarctic expedition cruise, including gentoo, king, macaroni, Adélie, chinstrap, rockhopper, Magellanic, and emperor. Read on to take a closer look at eight of these favourite waddling friends.
Gentoo penguin

© Dennis Minty

Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua)

With its bright orange bill, peach-coloured feet, and broad, white band extending across the top of its head, the waist-high gentoo is easy to recognize. This third largest penguin (after the emperor and king) is generally considered to be the fastest swimmer.

Nesting colonies can be found near the shoreline or as far as two kilometres inland. They are seen on the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, and on the Antarctic Peninsula. Their main food in most areas is krill, but they also eat fish, squid, and other crustaceans.

King penguin

© Dennis Minty

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)

The king is the second largest penguin next to the emperor and has very distinctive yellow-orange patches on its bill, head, and upper chest. Most king penguins that you will see are on South Georgia. About eighty per cent of their diet is fish, especially lantern fish.

The chicks, in their thick, brown, downy plumage, look like the creations of Disney animators. With a span of fourteen to eighteen months from hatching to fledging, the king penguin parents must leave their chicks for considerable periods. During these times, the chicks cluster together in crèches and are minded over by a few adults, freeing the rest of the parents to feed.

Macaroni penguins

© Dennis Minty

Macaroni penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus)

Alas, there is no relationship between a pasta and cheese casserole and macaroni penguins. Their name comes from a mid-eighteenth-century dandy who liked to smarten himself up by sticking feathers in his hat. Over one million pairs of this species nest on South Georgia.

As though dressed for a masquerade ball, with their red eyes and yellow and black plumes, they wobble and hop up and down the tussock grass slopes along damp paths that have been tromped for generations. Both parents incubate the eggs, exchanging roles every week or so. At the shift change, food is delivered (mainly krill) and a little mutual preening keeps the pair bond strong.

Adelie penguins

© Dennis Minty

Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae)

This diminutive penguin, about as high as your knee, is the most widespread of all the Antarctic penguins. Along with the emperor, it is the most southerly and therefore the most cold hardy. Their distinctive eye ring and feathered bill set them apart from other penguins. They can propel themselves through the water and leap about three metres into the air to reach an ice or land terrace.

Adélies are dependent on healthy ice, since krill (their main food source) forage on plankton that grows near floes and bergs. While colonies on the Antarctic Peninsula have declined, elsewhere they have grown or remained stable. Some might say that Adélies rank highest on the cuteness scale. When two stand side by side, flippers touching, they look like they are about to enter a square dance.

Chinstrap penguin

© Dennis Minty

Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus)

So named for the narrow black band resting beneath their chins and extending up to their black crowns, chinstrap penguins appear helmeted and are easy to identify. Smaller than gentoos but larger than Adélies, they are widespread all around the peninsula. A few of the chinstrap colonies you may see on a small-ship expedition cruise to Antarctica are at Deception Island, Orne Harbour, Half Moon Island, Astrolabe Island, or King George Island.

Rockhopper penguins

© Dennis Minty

Rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome, filholi, and moseleyi)

These knee-high penguins are packaged with a whole lot of attitude. They remind me of short, squat members of a biker gang, complete with lightning strokes on their helmets. I once watched a pair on West Point Island having a row and neither would give any quarter to the other. Finally, totally covered in mud with just their orange beaks and red eyes glowing, they took a breather.

Rockhoppers nest in rocky environments where the best way to move about is to hop from one rock to the next, which gives them their name. Most live in cool, temperate waters and islands north of the Antarctic convergence—the area where cold, northerly flowing water from Antarctica meets the warmer water of the subantarctic.

Magellanic penguin

© Dennis Minty

Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus)

These mid-sized penguins were named after Ferdinand Magellan, who first saw them in 1520 as he explored the coast of Patagonia. Living in warmer waters than many other penguins, they have patches of pink skin near the eye and base of the bill that have little or no feather covering, which allow them to dissipate heat.

They nest in burrows amongst the tussock grasses of southern South America and the Falkland Islands. Oil spills and bilge pumping from ships sailing around the coast of Argentina cause a considerable number of mortalities in this species each year.

Emperor penguin

© Dennis Minty

Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)

Emperors, with their striking black, white, and yellow plumage, are endemic to Antarctica. The largest of the penguin species, they are very rare to see on a ship-based expedition because of their southern, interior habitat. If you see one or two, you’ll be incredibly lucky!

Satellite tagging has shown them to be the deepest and longest divers of all the penguins, reaching depths of over 500 metres. They trek up to 120 kilometres inland to breed in the Antarctic winter, the coldest breeding environment of any bird.

After the female lays her single egg, she transfers it to the male for incubation and returns to the sea to feed. The male cradles the egg on its feet to elevate it above the cold ground. After hatching, the female returns and then both parents take turns caring for the chick.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.