I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about penguins until our first day in Antarctica.
They swim through the water like dolphins, their entire bodies breaching every few feet. They rest on top of the water like ducks, floating on their bellies. Underwater, they move like they are flying, flapping their wings up and down to propel forward.
A gentoo penguin swims in the water near a large colony. *All photos by Quark guests, photo guide Dave Merron, my mom Debbie de Peyster and me.
On land they move fastest when they are lying on their bellies, using their feet and wings to scuttle across the snow.
A juvenile Emperor penguin glides across the ice.
They walk upright awkwardly, with their wings thrust behind their backs for balance. They carve “penguin highways” into the snowy hills where they nest, creating an easy commute to the water.
Excuse me. Two gentoos meet in penguin highway.
They build their nests out of rocks, which makes sense given there is nothing else in Antarctica to use. When they are not raising chicks, the penguins spend their time at sea, where they live amidst the pack ice for most of the winter.
A gentoo carries a rock to its nest.
The black and white birds are almost everywhere in Antarctica. We saw four species in all: Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor and Gentoo.
Each is easy to identify from its features. Adélie have a black head with small white rings around their eye. The Gentoo has a red beak. The Chinstrap has a little black line around its chin, hence the name.
Two Adélies stand on the fast ice, a Gentoo walks in a penguin highway and a Chinstrap stands on a rocky beach.
The juvenile Emperor penguins we saw on a sheet of fast ice were a surprise. Emperors, the largest penguin at nearly four feet tall, typically nest much further south on the peninsula we were visiting. The two juveniles were alone and unlike their adult counterparts, didn’t have any color on their throats or beak.
A juvenile Emperor penguin stands on a piece of fast ice in Wilhelmina Bay.
We were in Antarctica at the start of chick season. The Gentoo penguins we saw had already laid their eggs on their rock nests and the others species would soon follow suit. While the Emperors balance their eggs on their feet and incubate them with a pouch of skin, the Adélie, Gentoo and Chinstrap penguins build nests.
A Gentoo jumps off the fast ice as an Adélie watches on.
There’s hardly any vegetation in Antarctica, and so the birds use rocks. They begin collecting when the ice hasn’t fully melted, which means they build nests high up on the shore where the wind has cleared the snow. The rookery is often separated from the water by a snow field, so the birds build pathways to get back and forth. Once the egg is laid, the penguins incubate it lying on their bellies.
Gentoo penguins nest on the rocks.
As is with nature, not all chicks make it. Brown skuas constantly flew through rookeries we visited and sometimes made off with an egg.
Penguins are considered marine birds and spend most of their life at sea. They cannot fly and use their wings to swim. Most come ashore only to hatch and molt, when they shed old feathers. Penguin predators, including leopard seals and orcas, are mainly in the water. It meant the birds weren’t very nervous on land and at times approached us.
A Chinstrap penguins calls out on a rocky beach in the South Shetland Islands.
Our favorite species was the Adélie. We didn’t see them very often, but during our one encounter three Adélies penguins were very curious and followed us as we walked on the fast ice.
See more penguin photos in the slideshow below, photos courtesy Quark guests, my mom and Quark photo guide Dave Merron.