“There are few places harder to get to in this world. But there aren’t any where it’s harder to live.” — Morgan Freeman narrating the introduction of “March of the Penguins”
Here are a few things that all Antarctic travelers should know:
- Penguins live almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly Antarctica.
- Their wings have evolved into flippers, an adaptation to the fact that nearly half of their lives are spent in the ocean.
- They feed on krill, fish, squid and other forms of sealife.
- The Emperor Penguin is the largest among the species, averaging about 3 feet 7 inches (1.1 meters) tall and weighing 75 pounds (35 kilograms) or more.
- The smallest penguin species is the appropriately named the Little Blue Penguin (also called the Fairy Penguin), which is slightly taller than a Barbie doll, at 16 inches (40 centimeters) in height and weighing only a little more than 2 pounds (1 kilogram).
- You’re not likely to see the large penguins — King and Emperor penguins — in Antarctica. To see those, you will need to do a cruise that includes the Falkland Islands or South Georgia.
Prehistoric penguins, I learned while researching these fabulous creatures, could be as tall as and as heavy as humans. Some 30 million to 40 million years ago, Nordenskjoed’s Giant Penguin grew to nearly 6-feet (1.80 meters). Can you imagine confronting a penguin of such proportions?
Though their wings are useless for flight, penguins are agile swimmers. That’s because the penguin’s vestigial wings have evolved into flippers. Using those flippers, penguins can swim at remarkable speeds, up to 17 miles per hour (27 kilometers per hour), and some species can dive deep. Emperor Penguins, for example, have reached depths of 1,870 feet (565 meters) for up to 22 minutes.
Their black and white appearance protects them from predators. Looking upward, for example, orcas and leopard seals have difficulty distinguishing the white penguin bellies from the water’s surface while the penguin’s dark back camouflages it from above.
A thick layer of insulated feathers keeps the penguin warm in water. In the extreme Antarctic winter, penguins control blood flow to their extremities, thus reducing the volume of blood exposed to cold while keeping their feet and wings from freezing. Exposed to temperatures that can dip to the most severe on the planet (the record was 128.6 °F /89.2 °C at the Soviet Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 20, 1983) penguins often huddle together to keep warm, and they rotate positions so that each penguin gets a turn in the center of the heat pack.
Penguins are, in fact, extremely adept at conserving energy — often in some creative ways. In addition to waddling, for example, they can slide across the snow on their bellies (tobogganing), to save energy while covering significant ground.
Penguins breed in large colonies for the most part, which explains why you may see so many in one place. Most are monogamous for the breeding season and the couple shares the incubation period, with males and females taking turns keeping the eggs warm while the other feeds at sea.
Antarctica used to be a tropical place densely forested and teeming with life. But then the continent started to drift south. And by the time it was done drifting, the dense forests had all been replaced with a new ground cover: Ice. As for the former inhabitants, they had all died or moved on long ago. Well, almost all of them. Legend has it that one tribe stayed behind. Perhaps they thought the change in weather was only temporary. Or maybe they were just stubborn. But whatever their reasons, these stalwart souls refused to leave. For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth. And they’ve done so pretty much alone. So in some ways this is a story of survival. A tale of life over death. — March of the Penguins