The 17 different species of penguins can be found on every continent in the Southern Hemisphere—Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America.
While most people associate these funny flightless waterfowl with the cold climate of Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands, they’re also seen as far north as the coasts of Namibia, Brazil, and the Galapagos Islands.
Here’s a look at the broad variety of places around the world where penguins live, as well as the best times of year to see them there:
ANTARCTICA & THE ANTARCTIC ISLANDS
If you’ve ever seen March of the Penguins, you probably imagine the penguins of Antarctica all huddled together is massive colonies to shield their eggs from a blinding blizzard. While that’s certainly a reality of life for some penguin species, it’s much easier for travelers to visit them during the Antarctic summer, when daytime temperatures often get into the 40s.
Antarctica is home to four different species of penguin, each of which has its own preferred habitat. Emperor penguins typically breed on pack ice and shelf ice (usually between the 66° and 77° south latitudes). But several breeding colonies have been found on land in recent years, including one at Amundsen Bay and another at Taylor Glacier in Victoria Land.
Chinstrap Penguins, gentoo penguins, and Adelie Penguins are all closely related and commonly seen. Look for them nesting on rocks relatively close to shore on both the mainland and numerous Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, including the Danger Islands, the Falklands, and South Georgia Islands.
The king penguin is second only to the emperor among the world’s largest penguins. They’re also one of the most plentiful penguin species, with an estimated 2.3 million breeding pairs. Though you won’t see them on the mainland, they can be found on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia, the Kerguelen Islands, Crozet Island, Prince Edward Islands, and more.
WHEN TO SEE THEM: Because of their location in the extreme southern part of the planet, the climate of Antarctica and the Antarctic Islands are relatively inhospitable to humans for the vast majority of the year. But summer in the Southern Hemisphere, which lasts from December through March, finds daily high temperatures soaring into the 40s (and occasionally even the 50s).
The region gets almost 24 continuous hours of daylight during this time, allowing plenty of time to explore the highlights of Antarctica. The melting away of coastal ice makes shore landings considerably easier. It’s also a great time to see baby penguin chicks at their fuzziest, snuggling against their mom to sleep or feasting on regurgitated tidbits from her gullet.
Zegrahm Expeditions offers a 22-day, 21-night cruise departing from Ushuaia, Argentina on January 4, 2020 and returning January 25. The Antarctica, South Georgia & the Falkland Islands expedition makes stops in 11 different ports. Along the way, you’ll see gentoo, Magellanic, and rockhopper penguins in the Falklands; king and macaroni penguins in South Georgia; a massive chinstrap penguin colony on Elephant Island; and Adelie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.
But of course there will also be plenty of other Antarctic wildlife along the way—from humpback whales and orcas and numerous species of seals to seabirds such as albatross, kelp gulls, giant petrels, skuas, and more.
AUSTRALIA/ NEW ZEALAND
Once you get away from Antarctica, most of the places where penguins live are rocky islands and dry, desert-like environments where their inability to fly doesn’t make them vulnerable to land-based predators.
Though most people think of Australia as dry and dusty, it’s also home to the little penguin, which is affectionately known locally as the fairy penguin due to its diminutive size. These adorable beauties can be found across the continent’s southern coast, including Sydney’s North Harbour, Tasmania, Victoria, and countless nearby islands (including, naturally, Penguin Island).
In New Zealand, they’re called little blue penguins (or kororā among the Māori people). New Zealand is also home to the yellow-eyed penguin (mainland, Auckland, Campbell, and Stewart Islands); Fiordland penguin (Open Bay, South, and Stewart Islands); and Snares penguin (a crested species found only in the Snares Islands).
Royal penguins—which have the colorful crest of a macaroni penguin, but a white face and chin—inhabit the waters all around Antarctica. But they generally only breed on New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, where you’ll find several hundred thousand mating pairs.
WHEN TO SEE THEM: The southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island may not be as cold as Antarctica, but temperatures can get as low as 14º Fahrenheit in winter (July is the coldest month). So it’s best if you can plan your visit in January or February, the warmest months in the southern hemisphere. The average temperature then is around 48º, with highs often reaching into the 60s.
When you’re packing, keep in mind that New Zealand is known to have four seasons in one day. Though temperature variations during the day aren’t typically extreme, the weather can change quickly with cold fronts or high winds blowing in.
Zegrahm’s 18-day Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand expedition, which departs January 16, 2020 is a great way to explore these rarely-visited islands. Guests on this small-ship cruise will explore South Island highlights such as Fiordland National Park as well as the Aucklands, Campbell, Macquarie, the Snares, Stewart, and more. Travelers can hope to see colonies of Gentoo, king, rockhopper, and royal penguins, as well as endemic species such as Snares and yellow-eyed penguins.
The southernmost countries in South America are home to four different penguin species.
Humboldt penguins (a.k.a. Peruvian penguins) are found on the continent’s west side, from Chile all the way up to the coast of Peru. They’re named after the cold water current in which they swim (which was named for explorer Alexander von Humboldt). You can identify them by the white border that runs from behind their eyes and around their ear-coverts, joining at the throat. They’re closely related to Magellanic penguins, with whom they share some range.
Named after the famous Portuguese explorer, Magellanic penguins have a massive range that extends from southern Chile and Argentina to the Falkland Islands and as far north as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You may spot them swimming in large flocks in the water, diving up to 50 meters to feed on cuttlefish, squid, krill, and other crustaceans. You’ll also likely see vast breeding colonies, with nests about 5 meters apart under bushes or in burrows.
The southern rockhopper penguin, one of two rockhopper subspecies, is the smallest of the crested penguins. They’re typically found on the islands off the coasts of Argentina and Chile as well as the Falklands. (Their Eastern Rockhopper cousins are found on the sub-Antarctic islands, including the Aucklands, Campbells, Crozets, Prince Edward, and Macquarie.)
The king penguin is most commonly associated with the sub-Antarctic islands. But there’s also an impressive colony in Tierra del Fuego, where they have their own protected sanctuary (Pingüino Rey Park).
WHEN TO SEE THEM: As with Antarctica and Australia, summer (December through March) is arguably the best time to visit Argentina and Chile. It can still get down to freezing temperatures at night, but days are mostly sunny with occasional gusts of strong wind. The further north you go into Patagonia, the warmer it usually is in the spring and autumn months.
The 7-day, 6-night Chile: Birds of Patagonia & Tierra del Fuego trip from International Expeditions is aimed at avid birdwatchers. This itinerary is fully customizable and typically includes visits to Torres del Paine National Park, Tierra del Fuego, and crossing the Strait of Magellan. You’ll see a king penguin colony, a Magellanic penguin colony, and countless other bird species along the way.
For a truly immersive Patagonia experience, IE’s land-based Patagonia expedition offers an 11-day, 10-night itinerary, with departures on December 20, 2019, January 5, February 1, and December 19, 2020. It includes visits to the accessible king penguin colony at Parque Pinguino Rey as well as a boat ride to the famous Magellanic penguin rookery on Magdalena Island.
IE’s Wine & Wildlife of Argentina & Chile expedition, which lasts 12 days and 11 nights and departs September 15 and October 11, 2019, is better for those who want to see penguins as part of a broader itinerary focused on culture and cuisine. Still, you’ll get plenty of wildlife, including herds of guanacos, southern right whales along the coast, and a massive Magellanic penguin rookery.
Located some 850 miles from mainland Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands is one of the only places in the world where travelers have a fairly decent chance to swim with penguins.
Though they’re the rarest and endangered penguin species on the planet, you’re virtually guaranteed to see Galapagos penguins on the western islands of Fernandina and Isabela (especially around Tagus Cove). But you may also see small populations on Floreana, northern Santa Cruz, and Santiago.
You’ll usually see them sunning themselves on the shore, or shooting like rockets underwater in search of a snack. My favorite encounter with them came during a cruise with International Expeditions off the coast of Bartolome, which is home to Pinnacle Rock. A pair of curious penguins hopped into the water right beside our group of snorkelers, and swam nearby for more than 20 minutes!
If you do get an opportunity to go swimming with Galapagos penguins during your visit to the islands, you’re VERY lucky: Our local guide said it had only happened to her once in 17 years of working in the archipelago!
WHEN TO SEE THEM: Of all the places in the world where travelers can hope to see penguins in the wild, the Galapagos Islands is the one where weather considerations are not a major factor. Due to its location on the Equator, the archipelago is fairly warm all year round, with high temperatures in the 70s to 80s and lows rarely dipping below 65º.
But if you want to swim with Galapagos penguins, you may want to consider the water temperatures. They’re at their lowest—averaging 70-71º—from July through September, with an average of 76 to 77º from January through April. But even when the water is cool, most snorkeling tours come with insulated wetsuits to ensure your comfort.
With departure dates scheduled in April, May, June, August, and October, IE’s Galapagos Islands Voyage offers an incredible overview of the archipelago Darwin made famous. The 10-day itinerary includes daily snorkeling opportunities, and—with stops at Isabela, Fernandina, and Bartolome—you’re virtually guaranteed to see the world’s rarest penguins!
When most people think of South Africa, they tend to think of Nelson Mandela, Big 5 wildlife safaris, and the scenic wine country around Cape Town. But the country’s coastlines are also home to the African penguin, which has become increasingly popular with tourists in recent years.
Their habitat spreads all the way around the southern coast from Algoa Bay, near Port Elizabeth, up to northern Namibia, with colonies on both the mainland and 24 different islands (including the Penguin Islands). Boulders Beach, near Simon Town, is one of the best places to see them. And because the colony is habituated to human presence, it is also possible to swim with penguins there.
Sadly, like its Galapagos cousin, the African penguin is currently endangered due to exploitation, oil spills, and depletion of their favorite prey, anchovy, and sardines. Their total population is down from 1.5 million in the early 20th century to just over 50,000 today. So if you do see these penguins in the wild, please be respectful and keep your distance from their nests.
WHEN TO SEE THEM: Much like the Galapagos Islands, South Africa’s weather is generally good no matter what time of year you choose to visit. Temperatures in the Kruger National Park area during the dry season (April to September) range from the high 40s at night to the mid-80s during the day. But June is the coldest month in Cape Town, with an average temperature of 55º.
If you want to have a chance of swimming with African Penguins on the country’s southwest coast, you may want to visit in February (the hottest month, with an average temperature of 73°) or late August/September, when highs get up to the low 70s.
Zegrahm Expeditions’ 16-day Time of Your Life South Africa trip, departing August 24, 2019, takes travelers all across the continent’s southernmost country—from Cape Town east to Tswalu Kalahari Game Reserve and the traditional safari experience of Timbavati Game Reserve. It includes visits to the African penguin colony at Stoney Point as well as the “oceanic Big 5” at Walker Bay in Gansbaai.
BIO: Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.