Witness the remarkable site and sound of colonies of 100,000 King Penguins!
What you need to know about the King Penguin
Our Expert Says… "One of the great highlights of a trip to South Georgia. King penguins' breeding cycle from pair-bonding to raising a chick takes almost a year, plus another 6 months for molting and fattening. This is the longest of any penguin species and hence their need for all-year-round access to the sea and preference for the ice-free islands."
The iconic King Penguin is the second-largest penguin species in Antarctica. Growing up to an impressive 1.3m (4ft 4”) in height, these large birds can weigh up to 18kg (40 lbs)! Males and females look alike, and both sport the bright orange cheek patch that distinguishes them from their larger cousin, the Emperor penguin.
King penguins are found throughout the sub-Antarctic islands, as well as the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego. They are renowned for forming huge breeding colonies. For example, the colony at Salisbury Plain on South Georgia island is made up of over 100,000 pairs - a remarkable sight and sound!
King penguins don’t build nests like some other penguin species, but their egg is incubated by being placed on the top of the penguins’ feet and being covered by a “brood pouch” that both males and females have at the base of their belly. The parents take it in turns in 2-week shifts to look after the egg and the newly-hatched chicks in this way until they have enough feathers and fat deposits to keep themselves warm.
King penguin chicks take a lot of looking after and aren’t ready to take to the open ocean for themselves for well over a year. Once they have grown large enough to keep themselves warm, they come together in large creches while the parent birds go off to hunt for food. They will stay like this over their first winter, sheltering together in groups.
The diet of King Penguins is mainly small fish, krill, and squid. Although a little ungainly on land, King Penguins are fast and streamlined in the water. They have been recorded diving as deep as 1,000ft to hunt, and regularly stay underwater for 5 minutes before needing to breathe.
Adult King Penguins are preyed on by leopard seals, orcas, and Antarctic fur seals. Their chicks are vulnerable to attack by seabirds, including giant petrels and skuas.
King Penguin: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the King Penguin can be observed
Cooper Bay is a small inlet containing Cooper Island at the very southeast end of South Georgia island. It was first mapped and named by Captain Cook’s 1775 expedition. From this small bay, you will get a commanding view of Cooper Island itself whose 1,300ft summit is always above the snowline, giving some stunning polar vistas even in the height of Antarctic summer.
Cooper Island is heavily protected for wildlife and it is a haven for bird species that love to nest in the tussac grass that covers the island, from the South Georgia Pintail and Pipit, to the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross and the South Georgia Shag. It is also home to four species of penguin, attracting Leopard Seals, and Cooper Island has the largest Chinstrap colony on South Georgia and is one of the more accessible places to see the Macaroni Penguin.
Fur seals and elephant seals also breed and also watch out for black-browed albatross, as well as Antarctic prions and snow petrels hunting for food offshore.
Elsehul Bay at the northwest extremity of South Georgia Island is known for two things - its remarkable numbers of seals, and its remarkable number of names!
At various times, and on various maps, it has been known as Elsehul, Else Cove, Elsie Bay, Elsa Bay, Else’s Hole, and (somewhat bucking the trend) Paddock’s Cove! It’s a small bay on the northern coast of South Georgia and is only half a mile wide.
Despite its small size, it is home to an abundance of wildlife including a large colony of Antarctic fur seals. As you arrive in the bay your ears will be ringing with the barks and cries of huge numbers of juvenile and adult seals.
Adding to the barrage are the cries from the seabirds that call Elsehul home, especially the King Penguins. Others that breed include Gentoo Penguins and Macaroni Penguins, Black-browed albatross, grey-headed and sooty albatrosses, and quite a few other seabirds, such as the South Georgia Shag and White-chinned Petrel. And since they eradicated the rat on South Georgia, it is a good spot for South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit.
The shore here is a patchwork of tussac grass and mud - so many seals moving around makes for some tricky conditions! Depending on the time of year you visit, the aggressive males may still be in the bay, or, if the mating season is ended, they may have left, leaving the pups and females in peace.
On the southeastern coastline of South Georgia Island, Gold Harbour is a small bay that leads up to the Bertrab Glacier, with a spectacular backdrop. Known as Puerto de Oro in Spanish, the Harbour was never named officially until the 20th century, but the name seems to have been in use by whalers and sealers and has become formally adopted.
The main theory behind the name Gold Harbour is that the cliffs around the bay shine yellow in the hour after sunrise and again before sunset. There’s no “gold in them thar hills”, but an alternative theory is that that whalers and sealers did financially very well out of the early years of exploitation.
Nevertheless, Gold Harbour is arguable one of the most beautiful places in the whole of South Georgia. As well as its stunning geology and spectacular illumination at sunrise and sunset, it’s also home to a huge amount of wildlife.
The beach here rings with the cries of king penguins, gentoo penguins, and elephant seals, all of whom like to breed in the sheltered bay. They aren’t the only ones, though. Wheeling across the skies in front of the hanging ice cliffs of the Bertrab Glacier are hundreds of pairs of sooty albatross, who come here every year to mate and raise their chicks.
Grytviken, Fortuna Bay
Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.
Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.
The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs
There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.
As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.
While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.
New Island - also known as Isla de Goicoechea in Spanish - is one of the Falkland Islands. A long, thin island with both steep cliffs and sandy bays, it’s 150 west of the Falkland’s capital, Stanley.
Despite its position on the westerly edge of the islands, New Island was one of the first to be visited and colonized. There is some evidence that whalers from America may have landed here as early as 1770. In 1813 a ship from Nantucket was wrecked here and the crew survived for two years before being rescued. They built a simple stone shelter which now forms part of the oldest building in the Falklands.
With stints as a base for guano miners and whaling companies, New Island proved to be uneconomical to exploit in these ways and was left for the wildlife to thrive. Now a wildlife reserve and registered Important Bird Area (IBA), New Island is a beautiful sanctuary for many Falklands and Antarctic species to breed and live.
Penguins, in particular, take advantage of the shallow beaches and rolling shores on the eastern coast. Five species can be seen here, including large breeding colonies of gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins. King penguins are also found here, as well as petrels, shags, dolphin gulls, Falklands skuas, and many more, with around 41 species breeding.
Sea lions and elephant seals can also be found hauled up on the beaches or swimming idly in the sheltered bays.
Salisbury Plain (known as Llanura de Salisbury in Spanish) is a large coastal flat plain leading to the Bay of Isles, off the northern coast of South Georgia.
Although this area of the coast of South Georgia was discovered by Captain James Cook in the 1770s, there were no detailed maps made of the region until a British Admiralty survey of the 1930s. A chart produced in 1931 is the first time this area was named, and it’s likely to be named after the “original” Salisbury Plain, a grassy, chalk plateau in southern England used for military training and home to Stonehenge.
The Salisbury Plain in South Georgia was formed by the glacial runoff from the nearby Grace Glacier. This glacier was named by American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy for his wife during his expedition of 1912.
Salisbury Plain is world-famous for its remarkable king penguin breeding colony. In 1912, Cushman estimated there were 350 pairs here. Now one of the world’s largest gathering of king penguins, official estimates are as high as 100,000 breeding pairs nesting here in peak season. Seeing the Plain filled with these regal birds is one of the highlights of any trip to South Georgia and to the sub-Antarctic.
Not to be outdone by the king penguins, southern elephant seals and Antarctic fur seals also use Salisbury Plain to raise their young and can also be seen in good numbers.
Saunders Island (known in Spanish as Isla Trinidad) is in the northwest of the Falkland Islands group and is the 4th largest individual island with 50 square miles of land.
Saunders Island is geographically stunning, as well as rich with remarkable wildlife. The island is made up of three peninsulas that are joined by narrow necks of land. The three uplands towner over the necks, with the tallest, Mount Richards, being 1,500ft above the waves below. The views from the headlands are astonishing.
Saunders Island has been designated an Important Bird Area (or IBA) thanks to the large numbers of breeding species that make their homes here. The beaches and cliffs are home to four species of penguin with thousands of Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic, King penguins - you can’t avoid hearing their raucous cries from all over the island! There also tend to be a few Macaroni Penguins and if you are lucky to see then you will have had a five penguin species day!
Other significant species to be found on Saunders include Falkland Steamer Duck, King Shag, Black-browed Albatross, the Striated Caracara (can be very inquisitive), Turkey Vulture, and a range of shorebirds, like the Magellanic Oystercatcher, to terrestrial birds from land birds from Dark-faced Ground Tyrants to the white-bridled finch. There are rats on the island so you do not tend to see the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird.
In the waters off the sandy shoreline, you can see the delightful Commerson’s dolphins - their black and white markings making them seem like miniature orcas - and even South American Sea Lions. Visiting Elephant Point will bring you face-to-face with the small colony of elephant seals that live here and gave their name to the beach. At the right time of year, if you are lucky, you might find southern right whales in the sheltered bays here feeding and resting before moving on.
South Georgia and Scotia Sea
South Georgia Island (known as Isla San Pedro in Spanish) is often described, quite rightly, as a highlight of many peoples’ Antarctic cruise experience.
The remote, rocky main island is 850 miles from the Falkland Islands and the same distance from the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s quite mountainous, with a central high ridge and plenty of bays and fjords on its coast, making for some stunning views and remarkable photographs.
There are 8 smaller islands (the South Sandwich Islands) located 400 miles to the southeast which are rarely visited.
South Georgia has a human history mainly centered around the sealing and whaling industries, with relics such as try pots and sunken whaling ships to be discovered. Many people also pay a visit to the grave of Ernest Shackleton, one of the most famous Antarctic explorers, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack while in South Georgia.
Part of one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the variety of the wildlife to be found in South Georgia is what attracts most of its visitors. From the world’s largest king penguin colonies to beaches crammed with elephant and fur seals, to breeding colonies of the bird with the largest wingspan in the world, the wandering albatross, to innumerable species of seabirds, South Georgia is a destination that serves up “days of a lifetime” every day!
St. Andrew's Bay
Saint Andrews Bay (more usually abbreviated to St Andrews) is a bay on the eastern shore of South Georgia, part of the British Terriroty of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands.
This 2-mile wide bay is overlooked by Mount Skittle, an impressive 1,600ft rocky mountain that forms the northernmost point of the bay itself.
The use of Saint Andrews as the name for the bay can only be traced back to the early 20th century, but it’s highly likely that the first people to sight and map it were the British expedition led by Captain Cook in 1775.
St. Andrews Bay is renowned for its huge breeding colony of king penguins, thought to be over 150,000 strong. The sights and sounds of so many birds together is not to be missed in one of the most spectacular locations in South Georgia with the mountains as backdrop!
There is also a ridge (if you are able to reach it, sometimes there are too many moulting penguins in the way) that looks down over the main colony with breath taking views, and sounds!
Fur seals and southern elephant seals are also frequently seen here, both in the water and hauled up on the shores, and fur seals can make it quite a challenge getting ashore. The rugged, rocky backdrop to the bay makes for some stunning photographs, and really evokes the remoteness of South Georgia.
The Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most people may be familiar with them because of the conflict that was fought here by armed forces from Argentina and the UK in 1982, but there is so much more to the Falklands.
Inhabited since 1764, these remote islands have been colonized and claimed by many countries - France and Spain have claimed them (and Argentina since its formation and former Spanish colony) although it’s the British descendants who make up the majority of the islands’ 4,000 population. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands are self-governing, but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs. Argentina still disputes the sovereignty of the islands they call the Malvinas.
Made up of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and over 700 smaller islands and islets, the Falklands are as beautiful as they are rugged and remote. Despite its history as a base for South Atlantic whalers and sealers, and more recently extensive sheep farming, the Falkland Islands have retained great biodiversity, and modern conservation has ensured many previously struggling wild species are now returning.
The Falklands is home to important populations of albatross, having some of the largest breeding sites in the world. They are also home to the rare striated caracara, 63 species of nesting land bird, and 5 penguin species. Seals, whales, dolphins, and other marine life are also abundant. Finally, the rugged landscape itself has a stark beauty, and the islanders, although hardy, offer everyone the warmest of welcomes, usually accompanied by a hearty Falklands Tea.
Fishing and farming account for the vast majority of the Falklands Islands income, although tourism is increasingly important. Many of the farms on the islands are now managed with wildlife conservation in mind, and the Falklands is a wildlife management success story.
Although most ships visit Stanley (usually for a day), the main focus on 'expedition' cruises are the outer islands with all the wildlife, and some of the special breeding birds like Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins and some Patagonia specialists like the Striated Caracara. Also bear in mind, with cruises that also go to South Georgia and the peninsula, only 2 or 3 days are normally spent in the Falklands, although some cruises spend longer here.