There are 17 species of penguins in the world and all but three species are considered endangered or threatened1.
Penguins are flightless birds with wing adaptations suitable for swimming. Their characteristic tuxedo-clad appearance (countershading) enables them to blend into their environment to reduce detection by both predator and prey. Seen from above, their dark back resembles the ocean waters, while from below their white belly blends with the brightness of the sky, ice or snow.
While all species are instantly identifiable as penguins, each species is also uniquely different, feeding on different prey and occupying different coasts in different regions of the Southern Hemisphere each with different climates. Their habitat ranges from Antarctica to the Galapagos Islands, which lie at the equator.
Penguins feed exclusively at sea and breed, incubate their chicks and moult exclusively on land. On land they have few or no predators, except in regions with human-introduced mammal predators. By breeding in colonies and in synchrony, penguins minimize predation on eggs and younger chicks. At sea, penguins are preyed upon by Leopard Seals, Sea Lions and Orca (Killer Whales). Their keen underwater eyesight and fast swimming speeds offer defense from these predators.
Not surprisingly the greatest threat to penguins is humans. While the once common practice of slaughtering penguins for lamp oil has long since ended, many new perils now exist2,3,4.
Petroleum has devastating consequences, not just from oil spills but also from petroleum pollution released in ballast water that can coat penguin feathers. Penguins commonly porpoise as they swim (periodically leaping above the surface) and can easily accumulate surface petroleum on their feathers reducing their insulation from the cold.
Commercial fishing practices compete with the food supply of penguin populations. In some regions, commercial fisheries remove 3-4 times as much food as the entire world population of penguins does, this despite penguins being the major avian predators of the southern oceans.
Destruction of penguin habitat is also a concern. Human destruction may be from costal development, disturbance of rookeries, harvesting of eggs, or simply removal of guano deposits. Global climate change also threatens the common habitats of penguins.
What about tourism?
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) is an organization that promotes environmentally responsible private-sector travel to Antarctica and is dedicated to develop, advance and advocate for environmentally responsible travel in the region5. Polar Cruises is an Associate B2 Member of IAATO and fully committed to preserving and protecting the natural environment and the habitats of wildlife.
If you are interested in experienceing penguins in their natural habitat, we can help. Visit our Antarctic travel page and contact us to find the trip that best fits your interests, schedule, travel style and budget.
IUCN Red List
World Population (breeding pairs)
Antipodes, Bounty, Auckland and Campbell Islands
Namibia and South Africa
|Tristan de Cunha, Gough, St Paul and Amsterdam Islands||350,000|
|Falkland Islands, Argentina and Chile||650,000|
|Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, MacDonald, Macquarie, Campbell, Antipodes and Auckland Islands||800,000|
South Georgia, South Sandwich, South Orkneys, South Shetlands, Bouvet, Prince Edward, Marion, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Falklands, Chile, Argentina and Antarctic Peninsula.
Northern Chile & Peru
Snares Islands, New Zealand
Antarctica, South Shetlands, South Orkneys, Bouvet, Balleny and Peter Island
Subantarctic islands and Antarctic Peninsula
Chile, Argentina and Falkland Islands
South Sandwich Islands, Antarctic Peninsula, South Orkneys, South Shetlands, South Georgia, Bouvet, Balleny and Peter Island
Marion, Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, Macquarie, South Georgia and Falkland Islands
Australia and New Zealand