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Emperor Penguin

Emperor Penguin

The largest of all penguins, Emperors stand tall among the Antarctic ice

What you need to know about the 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.

Emperor Penguin: Interesting facts

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.

Emperor Penguin: Pictures from our travelers

Seabirds
Emperor Penguin

Spots where the Emperor Penguin can be observed

snow hill hut
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

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