320,000 breeding pairs
Breeding Season: December - March
Distribution: Falkland islands
and south to the sub-Antarctic islands, the most northerly
of the 4 Antarctic species.
- 28 inches
Weight: 5.5 kg - 12lb
penguins are the largest of the Pygoscelis penguins,
though not by much
they average about 5.5kg
and 71cm tall for the southern gentoo and about 6.2kg
and 80cm tall for the northern gentoo. The northern subspecies
nests on and around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia,
while the southern subspecies nests as far south as the
Antarctic peninsula to 65 degrees south.
Gentoos are one of the
most laid back of penguins, while they do have their noisy
moments, particularly at nest building time, they are no
where near as aggressive and raucous as Adélies and
chinstraps for instance. By comparison a gentoo colony is
a calm and far more sedate place.
parent gentoo feeding its chick.
The chick is very close
to fledging judging by its size. Penguin chicks because
they are covered in thick down before they gain their adult
feathers frequently look bigger than the adults that they
are feeding from, it's largely fluff though and once they
shed the down and grow the adult feathers they seem to shrink
a few sizes.
This feeding is clearly
taking place away from the main colony. As the chicks get
bigger they beg for food from almost any adult that comes
their way. It is only in the adults interest to feed their
own chicks, so there is often a chase right through and
away from the colony with much calling to each other while
the adult establishes that this really is their chick.
A feature seen in this
photograph that surprises people is how green some bits
of Antarctica can appear away from the snow and ice. This
area is covered in snow and ice in the winter, but in the
warmer months, this melts exposing rocks and an extensive carpet of moss (not grass) in other areas, large expanses
of green turn out to be lichens growing on the bare rock.
can just about make out under the parent that the egg has
cracked and there's an as yet upside down foot as the hatchling
struggles out of its shell.
Gentoo penguins are the
last to arrive on their nesting sites at the southern limits
of their range. Unlike other species that nest alongside
them nearer to the Antarctic mainland, they wait until the
sea ice has retreated before heading for the nesting grounds.
gentoo nests are spaced out in a way that nearly all penguin
nests are spaced out, at just over two "attack lengths"
If a penguin sitting on
its nest can get a peck at a nearby or passing penguin,
then it will usually do so. The resulting spacing is that
penguins sitting on adjacent nests are just that bit too
far away to reach each other, so neither feels immediately
threatened and peace ensues. It reminds me of House of Commons
in the English Parliament where the government and opposition
benches are situated just over two sword lengths apart,
should the honourable gentlemen decide to circumvent
the electorate in the days when that sort of thing went
The down side of this
arrangement is that when a penguin wants to leave the nest
to go fishing, or if it's coming back from fishing, it becomes
in range of both beaks from the adjacent nests when walking
through the colony. So for the time from arrival at the
colony in the spring to when the chicks have grown up a
bit and hang around off the nest in "crèches",
coming and going can be quite painful for these hardy birds.
as cute as any baby bird can, penguin chicks of this age
are food processing machines.
With a relatively late
start to the season compared to many other birds and the
need to leave early before it begins to get cold with the
threat of sea-ice arriving, Antarctic animals have to grow
fast to survive.
This shot taken with only
a moderate telephoto lens shows how close you can get to
the nest without disturbing the penguins or chicks. This
was taken on Signy Island part of the South Orkneys group
when the only humans that the wildlife encountered were
occasional scientists who lived at the scientific base elsewhere
on the island. Increasing tourist pressure on certain regions
of Antarctica, particularly around the Antarctic Peninsula
mean that for many people who visit the Antarctic, it is
not possible to take such pictures. If the tourists that
visited were allowed to get this close to the wildlife on
a regular basis, the wildlife would soon up sticks (or stones)
area a number of long term scientific projects in the Antarctic
one of them being an annual
survey of penguin numbers and breeding success at specific
breeding areas. These pictures (taken 5 minutes apart) show
such a survey of an Adélie penguin colony on Signy
Island in the South Orkneys group.
As they look rather similar
it's not easy to know which penguins you've counted and
which you haven't. So the answer is to use very dilute paint
and tie a brush to the end of a stick, giving each counted
penguin a splodge as you count them. The problem on this
day was that the rather wet snow that fell meant that the
paint mark that was supposed to wash off the next time the
penguin went swimming, lasted only a few minutes instead.
It didn't make it any easier that the penguins kept laying
down and hiding their paint marks as they tried to shield
themselves from the worst of the snow.
7/ Learning to swim
This is one of my favourite
events that I was privileged to see when I was in Antarctica.
Gentoo penguins - one of my favourite Antarctic animals
being cute, comic and noble all at the same time. The
Gentoos - they're the ones with the orange beaks -
in these pictures are youngsters that have only just moulted
their juvenile down and have grown their adult plumage,
though are the penguin equivalent of young teenagers I guess.
It was a calm, mild day
and nearly all of the adult birds were off fishing in the
favourable conditions leaving the youngsters behind in their
crèche. For some reason, though these birds had never
been in the sea before, they decided pretty much altogether
that it was time to learn to swim and so they all waddle
down to the shore-line where there is only a very gentle
swell with waves of just an inch or two high coming in -
Unlike seals, penguins
learn to swim without their parents and these started off
paddling in the shallows. Some of the less adventurous types
mis-timing the waves and suddenly getting about two inches
of water over their feet would turn round and run back up
the beach flippers outstretched in considerable horror.
Eventually, they did all end up standing around in the water
like a collection of matronly old aunts "taking the
waters", they'd go in up their waists (or where the
waist would be if they had one) and look quite pleased with
themselves waving their flippers around a bit. Every now
and then, one of those pesky waves would come again and
take them by surprise, so it was jump up, flippers out and
all rush out of the sea again. All in all it was about half
an hour before they were all standing in the water and appeared
to be anything like comfortable with being there.
A few of them laid down
in water about 2 or 3 inches deep and put their beak in
the water, a bit like children daring themselves to put
their face in the water, then over the next half an hour
or so, they moved back out of the sea and went back to wait
for mum and dad to come with an after-dip snack.
Other penguin species
are much more forthright about the whole process, Adélies
for instance, stand en-masse at the waters edge and then
jump into "the deep end" right from the start.
I thought the Gentoo approach was far more civilized and
its not a gentoo penguin in fancy dress!
this is a different type
altogether. Named macaroni's after some 18th century English
travellers who took on some of the more flamboyant European
fashions, the Macaroni Dandies, themselves named from
their habit of eating macaroni during their "Grand Tour"
of Europe, an upper-class version of the gap year.
Macaroni penguins with
their bright yellow crest feathers nest on Antarctic islands,
in greatest numbers on South Georgia and Heard Island. They
are about 4.2kg in weight and some 70cm tall, superficially
they are similar to the smaller rockhopper penguins that
they are frequently found nesting nearby.