The Best Destinations To See Penguins In The Wild

Tourists in emperor penguin colony
Raimund Linke / Getty Images

Penguins are one of the most beloved aquatic animals, and it’s easy to see why based on the facts. They’re adorable, friendly and unique, making them an animal that many people have on their bucket list to see up close and in the wild. There are quite a few destinations around the world that penguins naturally inhabit, so follow along as we roundup the absolute best countries and locations to see each type of penguin in their natural habitat.

8. Gough Island

Not many people will have heard of Gough Island, and for valid reason. This tiny island in the southern Atlantic is considered one of the most remote places to be inhabited by people permanently: the population is usually about 6 people, who staff a weather station maintained there. It is almost 1,800 miles from Cape Town in Africa and 2,000 miles from the nearest point of South America. Since the island is so isolated, it is the perfect sanctuary for wildlife, particularly seabirds. Among the birds that Gough Island provides breeding ground for is the endangered northern rockhopper penguin. Over 3,000 breeding pairs live on Gough Island. The island is challenging to get to though, and it is a wildlife sanctuary, so you might choose “nearby” Tristan da Cunha as your getaway—although you’d still better be prepared to pay for passage there.

7. Galapagos

You’ve heard of the Galapagos Islands, if not because of the giant tortoises that live there, then because that’s where Charles Darwin did his famous study of finches in the 19th century. But finches and tortoises aren’t the only creatures that inhabit these equatorial islands: the Galapagos penguin also lives there. It is the only species of penguin to live north of the equator, a feat made possible by the cooling effect of the Humboldt Current. Closely related to other banded penguins, the Galapagos penguins have several adaptations to their environment, such as panting to cool their airways and deferring breeding under less than optimal conditions. The species is considered endangered, although the population has been slowly recovering after an alarming decline in the 1980s. About 90 percent of the penguins are living on Fernandina Island and Isabela Island.

6. South Africa

Most of us typically associate penguins with zoos and cold climates, which is why it’s surprising to hear that the birds aren’t always found living in the snowy climate of Antarctica. In fact, you can see penguins in Africa. The African penguin’s range is confined to the southern waters of the continent, and it is considered endangered; its population has been on the decline for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, the penguin remains popular with tourists. It is most closely related to the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins of South America. The African penguin inhabits areas of Namibia and South Africa. The Penguin Islands off the coast of Namibia are so-named because of the bird’s presence there.

5. Australia

Australia is renowned for its extensive biodiversity and it is home to some of the most unique species in the world. Australia is also home to large populations of one specific species of penguin: the little penguin, also known as the “fairy penguin.” This is the smallest species of penguin and it has slate-blue plumage. It lives around the southern coast of the Australian continent and a few select other locations. The little penguin is unique among penguins in that it burrows, rather than nesting above ground. Little penguins generally feed during the daylight hours and then return to their burrows in the evening. The event has led some places in Victoria to establish evening tours that allow visitors to watch the “penguin parade” as the birds return for the night. In some areas, the population of penguins has declined drastically, leading to some concerns about conservation in Australia.

4. New Zealand

Australia is often pointed to as a mecca of biodiversity since some of the most unique species on earth live on the continent, including penguins. New Zealand shares a lot in common with Australia, but the island nation also has its own unique biodiversity—and they surprisingly have Australia beat in the penguin department. New Zealand is home to not only little penguins, but Fiordland crested penguins, Snares penguins and yellow-eyed penguins too. The little penguin is often known as the “little blue” penguin or “blue” penguin to New Zealanders, owing to the species’ blue plumage. The Fiordland penguin is a crested species that breeds along New Zealand’s Fiordland coast; thanks to its small range and small population, the bird is considered vulnerable. The yellow-eyed penguin is endangered, although watching the birds is a popular tourist pastime.

3. Chile

When most of us think of South America, we think of the Amazon rainforest and deep jungles. Maybe we think of the Andes and Machu Picchu, but very often we forget that the southern tip of South America is circumpolar, meaning that it is very much like the lands we associate with more northern climes. The very southern tip of Chile is a great example of this. The country runs down to the very tip of the South American continent and even claims some Antarctic territory. It’s here that we’re most likely to see penguins: near Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn), the Magellan Strait and the nearby islands, Magellanic penguin populations flourish. This penguin’s range is extensive throughout Tierra de la Fuego, the southern tip of South America. Occasionally, gentoo penguins will arrive in the area as well.

2. Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands, off the coast of Argentina, are sub-Antarctic islands, so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that penguins turn up here with some regularity. The Magellanic penguin is a common sight, as are gentoo penguins. King penguins and macaroni penguins are also inhabitants of the islands. The southern rockhopper penguin, a vulnerable species, also calls the Falklands home. All in all, there are thought to be almost 500,000 breeding pairs of penguins on the islands—that’s nearly 1 million penguins, which means that penguins outnumber people nearly 3 to 1. With numbers like that, it pretty much goes without saying that you’ve got a good chance to get up close and personal with a variety of penguins if you make the Falkland Islands your penguin-watching destination.

1. Antarctica

Despite all the other places in the world where you can see penguins in the wild, Antarctica remains the number 1 spot to encounter these birds. The reasons are numerous: with few exceptions, the largest populations of the largest number of species occur here. You won’t find Adelie penguins too far afield and emperor penguins that end up on non-Antarctic shores are usually lost. Emperor penguins are probably the best-known of penguins, although Adelie penguins are also well-known as the model for the stereotypical, “tuxedo-wearing” penguin. Other species of penguins occur on islands in and around the Antarctic landmass, such as the South Sandwich Islands, where you can see chinstrap penguins and macaroni penguins. Gentoo penguins also inhabit this range, as do several other penguin species, making Antarctica the best place to glimpse the aquatic animal in the wild.

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