Perhaps it’s the slightly awkward way the marine birds waddle on land, or maybe it’s the mass popularisation of these animals in cherished films such as Happy Feet, Madagascar and March of the Penguins.
Whatever the reason, there’s no denying that people love penguins. And while you can always catch a glimpse of these charming creatures in the world’s best zoos and aquariums, there’s really nothing quite like the thrill of witnessing these marvellous birds in the wild.
Despite what you may think, the South Pole is certainly not the only place where there are opportunities to see penguins in their natural habitat. The list below features the best places around the world where getting up-close and personal with penguins would be an all but compulsory activity.
Most people tend to associate penguins with the frozen continent, and for good reason. Antarctica and the Southern Ocean islands, such as South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands, are home to several different penguin species, including the iconic yellow-crowned emperor penguin (below), the adorable adelie penguin and the aptly named rockhopper penguin (so named for the manner in which they jump from rock to rock).
Though previously inaccessible to most, in recent years, a number of tour operators and polar cruises have enabled more tourists to experience what is regarded as the world’s last pristine wilderness.
Polar Cruises and Quark Expeditions are two of these operators offering a wide variety of cruise options from just below US$6,000 (Quark Expeditions), with longer, more exclusive tours costing as much as US$17,995.
One of the best things about going on an Antarctic expedition is that you’ll see not only penguins, but also other incredible marine wildlife, such as whales and seals.
2. South Africa
For most, penguins wouldn’t come to mind when thinking of African wildlife, but South Africa – and the Western Cape province in particular – is, in fact, an amazing place to see these marine birds.
Cape Town’s most famous location for penguin-spotting, Boulders Beach (below) in Simon’s Town, offers not only a great opportunity to encounter the African penguin species (also known as the jackass or black-footed penguin), but also arguably one of the Cape’s most scenic beach experiences.
Entry to Boulders costs R70 (US$5) for adults and R35 for kids below 12, which helps contribute to the conservation of this endangered species. If you prefer to see the African penguin without the crowds, consider heading to the Betty’s Bay penguin colony at Stony Point. About a one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from Cape Town, the trip to the penguin colony will provide you with magnificent views of the epic False Bay coastline.
Home to the smallest species of penguins on the planet, affectionately known as little penguins, Australia offers visitors excellent prospects of encountering these marine birds.
With several prime penguin-viewing spots around the country, incorporating some penguin time into your trip down under is rather easy. Some of the better spots for seeing these creatures include King Island in the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania, Phillip Island off the coast of Victoria (close to Melbourne) and Penguin Island off Perth in Western Australia.
Famous for the entertaining Penguin Parade – the birds’ nightly migration from the beach to their dune burrows – Phillip Island (above) is 90 minutes from Melbourne and probably the most convenient spot for tourists. Booking for the Penguin Parade is essential and, with a range of ticket and tour options available, there’s something to delight penguin lovers of all ages.
4. New Zealand
Renowned for its natural wonders and unique wildlife, New Zealand is another destination where penguin sightings are not only possible, but also highly recommended as part of any nature lover’s travel itinerary.
Home to a number of penguin species, including little penguins, Fiordland-crested penguins and yellow-eyed penguins, the South Island offers some of the world’s best opportunities for encounters with these marine birds.
Recommended locations for penguin-watching include Banks Peninsula off Christchurch for little penguins, Dunedin for yellow-eyed penguins and Lake Moeraki and Monro Beach (above) for Fiordland crested penguins, which also happen to be the only forest-dwelling penguin species on the planet.
5. Tierra del Fuego and Falkland Islands
The South Atlantic Falkland Islands (below), off the coast of South America, and the Subantarctic Tierra del Fuego (main image) are both equally good destinations for those who wish to see the marine bird in the wild.
Home to several species of penguins, including the magellanic and gentoo varieties, each island offers intrepid tourists some of the world’s most thrilling encounters.
Travellers can reach Tierra del Fuego on a day cruise from Argentina’s Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world), where they can bask in the sight of thousands of penguin-breeding pairs.
As a rather remote location and with severe weather conditions, the Falkland Islands may not make most bucket lists. That said, however, five penguin species (king, gentoo, rockhopper, magellanic and macaroni) call the Falklands home, and an estimated half a million breeding pairs nest on the islands. Thus, as far as penguin encounters go, travellers will not leave the famously disputed territory disappointed.
6. Galapagos Islands
Famous for being the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution and natural selection, the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are well known as a hotbed of unique biodiversity found nowhere else on Earth.
The rich fauna includes the Galapagos penguin, the only penguin species that lives north of the equator. Unlike other breeds, they reside in the waters (above) around the islands year round. This is primarily due to the cooler waters resulting from surrounding ocean currents.
There are several operators organising trips to the Galapagos, including Southern Explorations, which has a large number of yachts, boats and dedicated tours that let tourists enjoy the best that these islands have to offer.
– TEXT BY SAUL LIPCHIK