Emperor penguins are one of Antarctica’s unique beauties. As the world’s largest living penguin species, emperors are aptly named and their size, striking coloring, and remarkable life history make them a must-see for enthusiastic birders and adventurer travelers alike.
Due to the emperor penguins’ nomadic tendencies, remote locations of breeding grounds, and Antarctica’s unforgiving weather, traveling to study these elusive birds can seem daunting. To make the best of this momentous experience, we’ve prepared a list of five things to know when planning your Antarctica emperor penguin tour.
1. Know When to Go
Depending on the location of the breeding colony you’re visiting, the best time to see emperor penguins is in November and December, after the harshest of Antarctica’s spring conditions have passed and before the birds return to the sea. This time period is also when you will see chicks. Visiting emperor penguin colonies before this window is not feasible due to extreme weather, poor flying conditions (fly-in trips), and extensive pack ice (cruises).
Emperor penguins primarily feed on fish, crustaceans and cephalopods (such as squid). Consequently, they prioritize their time in the sea, moving to breeding sites along the Antarctic coast specifically to mate and raise their young. The species is generally dispersed in the oceans for foraging from January to March. Around March and April mature penguins travel to rookeries to find a mate and breed. This may involve a trek of up to 75 miles (120 km) across the sea ice, to reach sheltered areas along the coastline. Around May the female lays a single egg then returns to the sea. Until the female returns around July or August, the male incubates the egg and watches over the chick if it hatches.
Once the female returns, the male is then able to travel to the sea to feed. He returns between 20-30 days later and from September to November and parents take turns foraging and caring for their young. Around December or January, all birds make the trek back to the sea and spend the rest of the Antarctic summer feeding there.
By November and December chicks have left their parents’ feet, are able to stand on their own and may have begun moulting into their juvenile plumage. Guests visiting during this window of time have the opportunity of seeing parents with their young, and baby chicks exploring and learning about the world around them. When visiting a colony, our guides recommend making time to take in the whole colony as well as focusing on individual birds and following them throughout the day.
2. Decide What Type of Experience You Want
The two main types of Antarctic emperor penguins’ tours are by land or sea. A few cruise lines have options to sail to emperor penguin rookeries along the Antarctic peninsula. The thickness of the sea ice determines how close any particular vessel can get to the rookery. From there tour operators will transport guests via helicopter to the sea ice, and then guests will walk the remaining distance (sometimes up to 45 minutes) to the rookery. Helicopter landing points are carefully chosen to ensure the wildlife is not disturbed. Guests will be able to observe the colony for a few hours before returning to their vessel via helicopter.
Land-based emperor penguin can offer a more immersive experience. Guests first fly to a basecamp in the interior of Antarctica. Then, when weather permits, they are flown by a ski-equipped aircraft to an emperor penguin colony. In the case of Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions’ (ALE) penguin trips, guests stay at our remote Gould Bay camp for up to 3-4 days. Our camp is located 1-2 miles (2-3 km) from the colony and offers meals prepared by one of our highly trained chefs. Our Gould Bay camp is the only place on earth where visitors can camp on sea ice and spend days at a time hanging out with emperor penguins with their cute chicks.
Camping near the penguin rookeries gives guests the opportunity to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and rhythms of the colony. 24-hour daylight allows experienced field guides to adapt the schedule to the best weather and lighting for photography and observing the wildlife. ALE makes every effort not to disturb wildlife and strictly adheres to IAATO’s Emperor Penguin Colony Visitor Guidelines.
3. Plan for Weather Delays
Weather delays are common in Antarctic travel and Emperor penguin tours are no exception. Strong winds and storms can delay travel and the rookeries themselves are situated along the coast, where moist air can bring heavy snowfall. Because of the remote locations where emperor penguins congregate to mate and raise their young, weather delays for Antarctic emperor penguin tours are extremely common.
Ships traveling to emperor penguin rookeries must be outfitted with a strengthened hull, be built with an ice-clearing shape, and have the power to push through sea ice. Even then, depending on sea ice conditions, some cruise operators report less than a 50% chance of reaching planned emperor penguin rookeries. Stable weather conditions for flying, especially in early November, are less consistent, making specific trip itineraries dependent on available weather windows.
For our fly-in trips, ALE recommends that its guests do not plan important meetings, functions or other trips for at least one week following their scheduled return from Antarctica. Purchasing a full-fare, flexible airline ticket that easily permits date changes without penalties is also highly recommended.
4. Educate Yourself on Environmental Best Practices
In order to protect emperor penguins and preserve their homes for generations to come, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) has created guidelines for visitors. Familiarizing yourself with these guidelines before your Antarctic emperor penguin tour will help you enjoy your experience responsibly. Some best practices include:
Avoid Disturbance of Wildlife
- Guests are required to maintain a precautionary distance of 17 ft (5m) from wildlife at all times. Walk slowly and carefully when approaching colonies. If you cross paths with a commuting penguin, stop moving and allow it to decide the direction it wants to follow.
- No surrounding colonies. Guests and tourist operators are asked to keep all activity to one side of the colony and to keep 50 ft (15m) away from areas adjacent to colonies facing the ice edge where the penguins commute to and from the ocean.
Biosecurity and Waste Management
- No sitting, kneeling, or lying down on the ground or snow, or leaving equipment on the ground or snow close to animal activity or fecal matter.
- Clean and disinfect boots and equipment before visiting Antarctica, and between sites, to reduce the possibility of transferring disease, or introducing non-native species to the environment.
You can view the full list of emperor penguin colony visitor guidelines here.
5. Prepare for Camp Life
For adventurers lucky enough to visit the colonies by land, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with some of the unique qualities that come with camping in the Antarctic.
At ALE’s Gould Bay Camp, guests stay in a single occupancy 4-season mountaineering tent, designed to withstand Antarctic conditions. The tents are low to the ground and unheated, but you will stay nice and warm with your insulated sleeping mat and polar-rated sleeping bag.
Weather in the Antarctic varies from cold clear days, to warmer sunny conditions, overcast skies, or even snowstorms. Temperatures typically range from 5°F to 23°F (-15°C to -5°C), but may dip as low as -25°F (-31°C). Proper gear you can layer is a must in order to comfortably enjoy your experience.
Toilet & Showers
In our camp, skillful staff construct field toilets which are both comfortable and private. The restrooms are cleaned regularly and guests are provided with hand sanitizer in each. All waste is returned to Union Glacier Camp for proper disposal. When at the colony, you will need to use pee bottles and toilet bags to collect your waste as nothing can be left behind.
From the heartwarming interactions between penguins and their young to the pristine wilderness that surrounds them, traveling to see emperor penguins in Antarctica presents the opportunity to immerse yourself into a world like no other. While aspects of traveling to see them can be challenging, you’ll find that an emperor penguin tour is not just a travel experience but a profound encounter with the beauty and forces of nature. If you have questions about venturing into the heart of Antarctica to study these difficult to find creatures, contact us and one of our travel specialists will be glad to help you.