Everyone knows that penguins are those cute, portly, flightless birds that wear tuxedos while waddling and toddling over ice and snow. Except for The Penguin (Batman’s arch nemesis) and a few other evil-doers, popular culture has stereotyped penguins as endearing, fun, friendly and playful.
As the movie March of the Penguins eloquently documents, there’s a lot more to an Emperor than his clothes.
Penguins typically like cold water, plus they don’t fly. Unless they hitch a ride on a cruise ship, they’re stuck in the southern hemisphere.
Here are more clues about our penguin pals:
- They all dress alike. All penguins have a dark back and white front, though each species displays some unique feature around the head or chest.
- They range in size from the Little Blue Penguin (Fairy Penguin) at 17 inches (40 cm) tall to the Emperor Penguin, which is the largest at around 3 feet, 7 inches (1.1 m) tall and 75 pounds (35 kg) in weight. That’s as heavy as a Golden Retriever.
- Most penguins eat krill, fish, squid and other sea creatures that they catch while swimming underwater.
- Males are typically heavier than females, with stronger bills and longer flippers. Even so, it’s tough for mere mortals to distinguish between the sexes.
- Most penguins are social creatures and prefer to live in colonies of thousands and even hundreds of thousands. These penguin cities are loud and odiferous.
- Penguins ward off the cold by huddling in a big group. They constantly move so that the warm guys in the middle rotate to the outside and the colder folks take a turn in the center.
- Because good breeding locations on the Antarctic coast and sub-Antarctic Islands are hard to find, it’s not unusual for different species of penguins to share the same real estate.
- Each year, penguins molt all their feathers and replace them with new ones. This takes about three weeks and a lot of energy.
- Penguins have natural predators. In the sea, they must look out for leopard seals and Orca whales. On land, sea birds called Skuas eat eggs and young chicks.
- Penguins have to cover a huge amount of territory to get from their nests and breeding grounds to the sea. Besides swimming and waddling, they use their feet to “toboggan” on land – slide or glissade on their bellies over smooth snow and ice without the aid of an ice axe. In water, they “porpoise” through the waves in an acrobatic series of forward dives, like dolphins do. This might look like penguin play, but these are efficient modes of transportation.
- Penguins come in approximately 17 different flavors (species) and sizes, and they set up housekeeping in various places.
[TRIP TRIVIA: Avoid contact with penguin guano at all costs, and wash your boots as directed by the ship’s crew. The smell can be overpowering in an enclosed stateroom!]
Close Encounters Of The Penguin Kind
As any reputable IAATO tour operator will tell you: Don’t stress the wildlife! When visiting your penguin friends, keep your distance. Make sure you stay at least 50 feet from nests and follow the no-touch rule.
Just don’t expect the penguins to read the same Interspecies Interaction Instruction Manual. Curious and fearless by nature, you can expect them to back you into a glacier, stalk you mercilessly, grab your pack, and boldly introduce themselves to the most timid tourist.
You’re on their turf. Enjoy!