Last year, more than 37,000 people travelled to Antarctica – up from approximately 8,000 just 20 years before. More and more adventurers are coming here to see this land’s ice, its nothingness, and its wildlife. And the animals everyone wants to see in Antarctica are emperor penguins, made especially famous by the Academy Award-winning 2005 documentary March of the Penguins. (I still can’t look at those little guys without hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice in my head, which I don’t mind, because it’s a great voice.)
Emperor penguins really are the stars of Antarctica. Photo courtesy Gary Arndt.
Emperor penguins are the largest of all penguins species, reaching upwards of four feet tall, which is bigger than most five-year-old children. Their funny-but-somewhat-distinguished flightless bodies have evolved over millions of years to be suited to the severe Antarctic climate. This is illustrated by their ability to dive and remain submerged for up to 18 minutes at a time in search of fish and crustaceans, and to a depth of up to 535m (1,755 ft)! How many five-year-old kids do you know that can do that?
Emperor penguins grow up to 4 ft tall.
Emperor penguins are serially monogamous, meaning they stay faithful to only one mate per year. After mating, the female gives birth to one hard-shelled egg, doing so in a colony of up to several thousand other expectant penguins. After laying her egg, the mother penguin’s nutritional reserves are so depleted that she must leave the egg with her mate and go to the seaside to feed for two whole months. While she is gone, the father incubates the egg either by balancing it on his feet – or tucking it into his body’s incubating pouch – for a period of up to 64 days without moving much at all. The egg cannot touch the snow beneath the father because the frigid temperature of the ice will kill the chick inside. Then within ten days after the chick has hatched, its mother will return to care for it, having circled the colony listening for the specific, unique call of her mate, which she’ll recognize among the thousands. Nature’s cool like that.\
Emperor penguins are monogamous. Just look at this little family. Photo courtesy Martha J.
Recent estimates list the global emperor penguin population at around 595,000 birds, double previous estimates taken before scientists were able to count them in satellite images from space. They’re conservation status is still considered “near-threatened,” however, so as Antarctic tourism continues to grow, regulations for travellers become tighter. Because Antarctica is a continent of species that evolved entirely outside the presence of humans, the animals that live there are particularly susceptible to the micro-organisms travellers can bring with them on their clothing. The Antarctic tourism industry, on its own initiative, recognized these concerns nearly a decade ago and began implementing procedures to address the possible introduction of alien organisms into Antarctica. After all, a singular infection of one animal has the potential to do damage to an entire colony.
Power in numbers. Emperor penguins exist in colonies.
If you are so fortunate someday visit Antarctica, I hope the emperor penguin population is bustling and healthy during your visit. Being in their world is a special experience and, with some collective care, we can ensure they’ll be around to welcome adventurers for generations to come.
Curious penguins playing with the camera lens.
Follow in the footsteps of Shackleton right to the emperor penguin colonies with G Adventures. The Spirit of Shackleton departs each January and we are simply thrilled by the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours. Check out our roster of expedition cruises here.