The largest of all penguins, Emperors stand tall among the Antarctic ice
Information about Emperor Penguin
Our Expert Says… "Because they breed so far south it's difficult to see Emperor penguins on Antarctic expeditions, although in the early part of the season young fledglings will be exploring and so you may be more likely to spot one then. Although there is a real concern that with ice shelves breaking up some colonies will disappear, satellite surveys have found new colonies we weren't previously aware of."
The emperor penguin is the largest penguin species, growing up to 1.2m (47") tall and weighing in at up to 45kg (100lb). They are not only remarkable for their size but also their endurance and ability to survive everything the vicious Antarctic winters can throw at them.
Emperor penguins are the only species that breed in the winter, and they will undertake long marches from the sea to their breeding colonies. Some travel up to 75 miles from the water's edge!
The females lay a single egg, keeping it off the ice by balancing it on the tops of their feet. They then transfer the egg to the males' feet (a difficult and precarious process). The females then return to the sea to feed for two months, leaving the males alone to incubate the egg. The males can produce a special substance called crop milk, which can feed the newly hatched chick but only for about a week. If the female is late returning with her full stomach, the chick will starve.
Because they don't have fixed nests, there is no obvious way to identify the location of the egg or chick for the returning female bird. This is why Emperor Penguins have the widest range of vocalizations and calls of any penguin species. They use these to identify and locate their partner among a colony of several thousand birds.
They also use these calls once the chicks have reached around 50 days old. At this point, both parents return to the sea to feed leaving the chicks alone. They creche together, sometimes in groups of several thousand, huddling closely for warmth. The chicks at the outer, windward edges of the creche will endure the brunt of the conditions for a while, before moving around to the leeward side and letting another chick take the worst the Antarctic winter can throw at them. It's only by creching in this way that chicks can survive at all.
Even with this behavior, it's estimated that fewer than 20% of Emperor penguin chicks survive their first year.
Adult Emperor penguins have several adaptations that enable them to survive in temperatures as low as -40C (-40F). Their feathers are incredibly dense, and these provide up to 90% of the insulation they need. Special muscles raise the feathers when on land, to trap a layer of air. In the water, they contract, pulling the feathers flat to give maximum protection from the cold water.
Emperor penguins also lay down a significant layer of body fat at the start of the breeding season - over an inch thick. Nevertheless, by the end of the winter breeding season, males will have lost as much as half their body weight.
Interesting facts about Emperor Penguin
You are very unlikely to see an Emperor Penguin on most peninsula cruise, the colonies are just too remote and inaccessible (some mean a lot of ice breaking in the ship, then a helicopter ride to get close).
But do look out for an unusually large penguin on the ice in the Antarctic Sound, the Weddell Sea, and south of the circle. If you have a lot of luck, you might spot one. If you think you have spotted one, get the attention of a staff member.
Pictures of Emperor Penguin
Highlights where the Emperor Penguin can be seen
A gateway to the ultimate adventure that only a few will be lucky enough to experience.
Located at the northerly tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Sound is a remarkable onslaught for the senses as you come face-to-face with monstrous slabs of ice, now floating free as enormous tabular icebergs. These have broke away from ice shelves in the Weddell Sea and drifted into the Sound.
Treacherous to early explorers, the first vessel to successfully navigate the Sound was The Antarctic, the vessel of the Swedish Nordenskjold expedition of 1903. Unfortunately, she was trapped in the Weddell Sea by ice the following year and crushed - one of several vessels to have that fate over the decade.
Fortunately, modern polar cruising vessels have no such worries with their strengthened hulls and modern navigation technology. As you enter the monochromatic beauty of white ice and grey sea you will know that that you are soon going to experience some of the remarkable sights and encounter the wonderful wildlife that makes its home in these islands of snow, ice, and rock.
Cape Royds is a rocky strip of land that marks the westernmost point of Ross Island in McMurdo Sound. It was discovered, mapped, and named by the British expedition of 1901. Charles Royds was the expedition’s meteorologist.
Cape Royds has two claims to fame that draw Antarctic explorers. The first is that it is home to the world’s most southerly breeding colony of Adelie penguins. The unique conditions in McMurdo sound mean that there is always some open water among the ice that allows them easy access to fish, hence their presence so far south.
The other aspect that draws people here is a human one - Shackleton’s hut. Shackleton entered McMurdo Sound in 1908 and sought somewhere to take refuge for the winter where his team might have a chance of surviving. Cape Royds is where they overwintered.
When spring arrived, and the expedition was ready to go further afield, the hut was stocked with sufficient provisions and equipment to enable 15 men to survive for a whole year if needed. A note was left explaining where everything was located and then the hut was left.
Today, the inside of the hut is like a time capsule from the early 20th century. It’s quite eerie to realize that you will enter a space that would still be instantly recognizable to the men who lived here over 110 years ago. The hut at Cape Royds still held some secrets, though - in 2006 a whole case of whisky was found buried under the hut! It’s now in a museum being preserved.
Mawson’s Huts and Cape Denison
Cape Denison is at the eastern edge of the Australian Antarctic Territory at the head of Commonwealth Bay. The peninsula is mostly free of ice and made up of a series of rocky valleys and ridges.
The importance of the Cape to Antarctic human history lies in the collection of buildings known as Mawson’s Huts. These were built and lived-in during an Australian Antarctic Expedition that ran from 1911 to 1914, led by the explorer and geologist Sir Douglas Mawson.
The huts that now bear his name are very rare, being only one of six sites that still remain from the so-called “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration. There are several buildings that were constructed to house scientific instruments, including taking magnetic readings and astronomical observations. There was also a radio hut - the first time radio transmission was used in the Antarctic.
The main hut at Cape Denison has undergone some preservation work but snowfall can still often get inside. Because of the delicate nature of the hut, only 4 people at any time are allowed inside. There you can find an amazing time capsule from the early 20th century, including the cast-iron stove, bottles, jars, cans, and other everyday items. Some of the storage shelves have the names of the men who placed their belongings there written on them with the date - still legible after 120 years.
Apart from Mawson’s Huts, Cape Denison is a popular spot for breeding wildlife. Weddell seals can often be seen with pups during the breeding season, and there are also bird colonies including skuas, petrels, and penguins.
Seabee Hook, Cape Hallett
Seabee Hook is a large, unusually flat spit of land made of volcanic ash and rock. It pushes out about half a mile from Cape Hallet, off the coast of Victoria Land.
Its unusual name is derived from the initials CB (pronounced “Seabee”) which stands for Construction Battalion - referring to naval engineers who surveyed the site for a possible base in the 1950s. It’s called a Hook because it’s shape is very much like that of a billhook.
It has been used now and again since the first survey as a base for exploration or scientific discovery, but this caused the resident Adelie penguin colony to suffer.
In what has become an Antarctic “good news” story, since the base was dismantled and the Hook turned into a protected area, the Adelies are bouncing back, and scientists regularly monitor them to try and ensure the recovery continues.
Because of the fragility of the colony, there are strict rules in place to make sure no contaminants are brought onto the Hook by visitors, so be prepared to have your boots carefully cleaned before coming ashore here!
As well as the Adelies, watch out for south polar skua nests - another species that takes advantage of this curiously-shaped spit.
Snow Hill Hut
Snow Hill Island is very well named! This large island is 21 miles long and over 7 miles wide and is almost completely covered in snow all year round.
It was first discovered by a British expedition in 1843 and named “Snow Hill” because it wasn’t clear at first if it was connected to its neighbor, Seymour Island. Subsequent surveys by a Swedish Expedition in 1901 found that it was, indeed, a separate outcrop, and “Island” was added to its name. The high ground on Snow Hill Island rises to approximately 560ft above sea level.
Snow Hill is important geologically. There have been many marine fossils found in its rocks, and huge dikes of had-wearing basalt rock have withstood erosion to become important and striking features.
The 1901 Swedish expedition spent three winters on Snow Hill Island, using it as a base to explore the wider area. They built a wooden hut in 1902 which still stands and is now a designated Historic Monument.
Snow Hill Hut is a 20ft by 26ft wooden building that is preserved as a time capsule and consists of a central living room, a kitchen, and 3 double bunks. You can still see furniture, bedding, lamps, plates, food packages, and more everyday items that were simply left when the hut was abandoned. The contents of Snow Hill Hut were then preserved in remarkable condition by the Antarctic cold.
There is the very slight chance of encountering an Emperor Penguin on an ice floe here since there is the Emperor Penguin colony on the permanent ice just to the south of Snow Hill Island. The actual colony is very inaccessible and only a few cruise ships manage to reach the location in the early season with all the additional ice (and when the Emperor Penguins are completing their breeding cycle throughout the winter!). In most cases a helicopter is also required to get closer, then a trek across the ice.
Our trips to spot the Emperor Penguin