You needn’t go quite to the ends of the Earth to see penguins in the wild, but you’ll need to get pretty close. Of the 17 species that occur worldwide, the majority – and certainly the largest populations – are confined to the southern latitudes, found either on Antarctica itself or on the various sub-Antarctic islands that surround the world’s wildest continent.
A cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula, taking in the Falklands and South Georgia en route, should produce half-a-dozen species, including huge colonies of king penguins, plus adélies, gentoos, chinstraps and rockhoppers. To see emperor penguins – for the full Happy Feet experience – you must head even farther south, across the Antarctic Circle, to the coastal pack ice.
But Antarctica is not your only option. If you don’t fancy crossing the notorious Drake Passage, you can stay shore-bound on the South American mainland. Macaroni, Magellanic and rockhopper penguins inhabit the wild islands and inlets of Patagonia, from Argentina around to Chile, with some fabulous scenery to boot.
Magellanic penguins in Patagonia (Alamy)
Penguin aficionados might also consider a cruise around New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands. Scattered among these remote, uninhabited outposts are such rarities as erect-crested, snares and yellow-eyed penguins, found nowhere else on the planet. Drop in on the remote fjords of the South Island and you may also pick up a shy Fiordland penguin.
The little penguin – the world’s smallest – lives in scattered colonies around the southern coast of Australia. One is at Penneshaw, on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, where you can watch these endearing seabirds by torchlight as they return to their burrows after a day at sea. The island is also home to an impressive selection of other Australian fauna. Kangaroos, naturally, but I also found wallabies and echidnas at Flinders Chase National Park and tracked down rare glossy black cockatoos to their one breeding site.
New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic
The scattered islands are home to some of the rarest animals on Earth, including at least five species of penguin. Exploring such remote outposts as the Bounty and Antipodes islands will bring close encounters with the delightful erect-crested and yellow-eyed penguins, while a cruise among the South Island’s dramatic fjords may produce shy Fiordland penguins waddling out of the coastal rainforest. Serious bird lovers will also encounter a wealth of other rarities, including several endemic species of albatross. During my cruise, sperm whales and dolphins also put in an appearance.
One of the world’s most impressive penguin gatherings is at Punta Tombo, on the Patagonian coast of Argentina, where more than a million Magellanic penguins have excavated a city of burrows beneath the sand dunes. Other wildlife includes the elephant seals and southern right whales of the Península Valdés, guanacos roaming the scrubby interior, and Andean condors soaring above the Moreno Glacier.
African penguins near Cape Town (Alamy)
Against the backdrop of Table Mountain on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula is the world’s most laid-back penguin experience. On Boulders Beach, I had hardly stepped from my car before African penguins (the continent’s only species) were waddling beneath the boardwalk at my feet. Other highlights include southern right whales and – for the intrepid – cage-diving with great white sharks. With famous beaches, Cape Town and the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek vineyards, plus good roads and guesthouses, this is one penguin expedition to make under your own steam.
Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
The Galapagos penguin is the northernmost of the birds and endemic to these equatorial islands, where it breeds in crevices beneath old lava flows – notably on the islands of Isabela, Fernandina and, possibly, Bartolomé. It is, of course, far from the only attraction of this archipelago. Other highlights include giant tortoises, marine iguanas, sea lions, green turtles and a host of unique bird species.
A penguin in the Galapagos (Fotolia/AP)