While most people associate penguins with the endless ice and snow of Antarctica, the cute critters inhabit diverse countries and habitats. Barring the Galapagos penguin which lives on tropical islands just to the north of the equator, all the rest of the 17 or so species can be found in scenic and secluded spots within the Southern Hemisphere.
In general, penguins live in colonies along a country’s coastline or on isolated islands that are surrounded by waters teeming with krill, fish, and squid; their main food source. Highly adapted for life at sea, the flightless birds have flippers rather than wings which propel them through the water after their prey.
To help them evade and escape predators such as orcas and leopard seals, the agile aquatic creatures are camouflaged with black backs and white fronts. Penguins come in a wide range of sizes with the smallest standing at just 30 centimeters in height and the tallest – the majestic emperor penguin – towering to over a meter.
Surrounding the South Pole is the Earth’s southernmost continent, the inhospitable and ice-clad Antarctica. Amidst the biting cold and blinding blizzards, five species of penguin live, huddling together for warmth and protection, on the thick pack ice and endless ice shelves.
The most famous of these is the aforementioned emperor penguin, the tallest and heaviest of the entire species. Remarkably enough, they are also the only kind that breeds during the freezing Antarctic winters in massive breeding colonies that number in the thousands.
Like their nearby neighbors, Adelie, Chinstrap, Gentoo and King penguins also live on and around the icy edges of Antarctica. While seeing these incredible waddling creatures from up close is an amazing experience, Antarctica is, unfortunately, the most inaccessible of all Earth’s continents with only a few tours that take people to see the penguins each year.
2. South Africa
While most people would usually associate Africa with lions, elephants, and giraffes, the continent is also home to the African penguin with numerous colonies found scattered along South Africa’s coastline. Also known as the ‘black-footed’ or ‘jackass penguin’ due to its loud donkey-like bray, the charismatic species is very popular with tourists but has sadly been in decline for a while now.
In total, South Africa is home to the vast majority of the Earth’s African penguin population. Most of the beautiful birds reside either in Algoa Bay, the Eastern Cape or on isolated islands off the Western Cape. The most popular place to see them, and even swim alongside them, though is at Boulders Beach, just outside Cape Town.
Besides walking alongside penguins on the sheltered beach, visitors can also view the 60 centimeter-tall birds and their colony from the nearby boardwalk. As well as being a top tourist attraction, the penguins play an important role in the survival of their species. They are the only colony to still breed on the continent, with all the rest nesting on islands offshore.
3. Galapagos Islands
Renowned around the world for its unique wildlife, the isolated Ecuadorian archipelago of the Galapagos Islands lies in the Pacific Ocean, over a thousand kilometers from the mainland of South America. Although the small collection of volcanic islands are tropical, they host the Earth’s northernmost penguin population; the Galapagos penguin.
Despite the warm climate, the second smallest species of penguin has survived thanks to the cooling and nutrient-rich waters of the Humboldt and Cromwell Currents. In addition to this, they have also developed several ingenious techniques to keep cool, such as panting, protecting their feet from the sun, and keeping their eggs and chicks in the shade.
Almost all of the penguins can be found on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela, with only small scatterings living on the other isles. A monogamous species that mates for life, the Galapagos penguin is sadly in steep decline due to factors such as illegal fishing, unreliable food sources, and the many predators that prey on them due to their small size.
4. New Zealand
Although it might not get quite as cold as Antarctica, a staggering 13 species of penguin have been sighted in New Zealand over the years. While some breed along the South Island’s cold and craggy coastline, others inhabit the subantarctic archipelagos of the Antipodes, Auckland, Bounty, Campbell, and Snares Islands.
Lying hundreds of kilometers to the south of mainland New Zealand, these isolated and uninhabited islands boast several important breeding colonies. Within their rocky reaches live erect-crested, southern rockhopper and Snares penguins; all of which exhibit exquisitely coloured quiffs and crests.
On the South Island, you can also find other species, such as the Fiordland crested penguin and the rare yellow-eyed penguin. While the former remarkably nests among tree roots and in coastal forests, the latter makes for a very popular tourist attraction with many people going to visit the colonies on the Otago Peninsula.
The eighth-largest country in the world, Argentina lies mostly in the southern half of South America with its cold climes home to four species of penguin. While only a few small Gentoo breeding colonies have so far been discovered, Macaroni, southern rockhopper and Magellanic penguins are relatively common and inhabit numerous coastal regions and islands.
As the Macaroni penguins in Argentina only breed on isolated islands that are very inaccessible, most visitors instead go to see the other two species. At Puerto Deseado, for instance, you can take a boat trip to the nearby Isla Pinguino to see southern rockhoppers hopping about the rocky island and nesting amidst its tall grasses.
One of the most popular places to see penguins, however, is at Punta Tombo in Patagonia where hundreds of thousands of Magellanic penguins come to breed between August and October each year. Stretching for as far as the eye can see, the massive colony certainly makes for a spectacular sight as all the proud parents and fluffy hatchlings coat the wide beaches of the peninsula.
While Namibia might not be the first place that springs to mind when people think of penguins, the Southern African nation also has a couple of colonies scattered along its rocky coastline. In general, small groups of African penguins can be found either in secluded spots on the mainland that are protected from predators or on craggy coastal islands just offshore.
Many of the smallish species breed at either Hollams Bird Island or the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, with many more residing on the, appropriately named, Penguin Islands. In total, the pretty penguins can be found from Roastbeef Island in the south, right up to Cape Fria in the north. They can be distinguished from other kinds of penguins by the distinctive pink glands above their eyes.
While the number of African penguins on the continent has sadly been in decline now for a few decades, due to decreases in sardine stocks and other environmental pressures, Namibia’s population has thankfully remained relatively stable.
7. South Georgia Island
Surrounded by the wild waters of the Atlantic Ocean is the secluded subantarctic South Georgia Island, over two thousand kilometers to the east of South America’s tip. Administered by the United Kingdom, and only accessible by boat, its remote reaches and numerous bays and fjords are home to a plethora of penguins, as well as countless other kinds of birds and seals.
Most hardy adventurers and avid bird watchers who make it to the isolated isle come to see its huge colonies of King penguins. In total, around a million of the incredible creatures can be found at both St Andrews Bay and Salisbury Plain where they cover its beaches year-round. This is because the waters surrounding the island are rich in terms of both nutrients and sea life. The aquatic birds are remarkably able to dive over a hundred metres in depth to search for food.
While seeing so many of the second largest species of penguin is certainly South Georgia’s standout attraction, the idyllic isle is also inhabited by colonies of chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. It is also well known for boasting the world’s largest colony of Macaroni penguins, said to number around three million breeding pairs in total.
8. Falkland Islands
Made up of two main islands and hundreds of smaller ones, the Falkland Islands are located far off the east coast of Argentina in South America. Biogeographically part of the Antarctic zone, its cold and wind-swept coasts, hills, and even cliffs, are inhabited by penguins with many other birds and wildlife also on show.
The most prevalent of its penguins are the remarkable rockhoppers who defy gravity as they scale steep cliffs to sit atop of escarpments overlooking the sea. While there certainly are a lot of them, most of the migratory species live on and around the uninhabited Beauchene and Jason islands.
The Falkland Islands are also home to the largest population of Gentoo penguins in the world. Due to this, the cute critters with their distinctive white head marking act somewhat as a mascot for the British overseas territory. The archipelago also has sizeable colonies of King, Macaroni and Magellanic penguins scattered about here and there.
Sandwiched between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, is the long and narrow country of Chile which makes up most of the west of South America. Home to a staggeringly long coastline, it boasts some of the most awe-inspiring and accessible penguin populations in the world. Five different species can be found inhabiting its cooler southern realms.
Just off the southernmost tip of mainland South America, for instance, is the Tierra del Fuego where you can find the phenomenal Pinguino Rey Park. As well as being home to stunning scenery, it also boasts the continent’s only colony of King penguins, who make for a fine sight with their regal stature and colourful plumage.
Besides the many Macaroni, Magellanic and southern rockhopper penguins who live along Chile’s craggy coast and on isolated isles, the country also hosts most of the world’s Humboldt penguins. Named after the famous German naturalist and explorer, its countless colonies dot the entire coast with the majority residing within the Pinguino de Humboldt National Reserve in the north of Chile.
As well as being home to kangaroos, koalas and wallabies, Australia and its sub-antarctic islands have six spectacular species of penguin for visitors to check out. While many of these live on isolated and icy isles nearer to Antarctica than the Outback, others can be found just a stone’s throw from both Melbourne and Sydney.
Just off the continent’s southern coastline, for instance, is Phillip Island which is home to the largest little penguin colony in the world. Also known as the fairy or little blue penguin due to its plumage, it is the smallest of the species, reaching an adorable 30 centimeters in height. These pint-sized penguins look amazing all rushing towards the sea together.
The rugged and remote Macquarie, Heard, and McDonald islands also house King, Royal, Gento, Macaroni, and rockhopper penguins. As the islands are very inaccessible, however, these captivating creatures and their colonies are only seldom visited by people other than scientists and researchers.