The Best Places in the World to See Wild Penguins
Published 09 September 2016
One of the planet’s most treasured birds, the penguin’s waddly antics charm those young and old, who flock to see it in various zoos and bird sanctuaries across the globe. But for the ultimate wildlife thrill, why not see them in the wild? You’ll need to go to the other side of the world – with just one exception, penguins live in the southern hemisphere – but there are plenty of beautiful spots to watch them from. Here are a few of our favourites:
Phillip Island, Australia
Just 90 minutes by car and ferry from Melbourne, Phillip Island is a wildlife lover’s dream. The undulating rocks and coarse sand beaches are home to seals, wallabies and kangaroos, as well as various birds, including shearwaters and Pacific gulls, while orcas and dolphins frolic offshore. But forget all that; what you’re really here to see are the adorable little penguins, only 30cm tall, who march en-masse up the beach each evening at dusk after a busy day’s fishing, a phenomenon known as the Penguin Parade.
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Oamaru, New Zealand
Over in New Zealand they have a different name for little penguins. Here they call them blue penguins, due to the indigo hue of their coats, or sometimes even fairy penguins. But whatever you call them, they still faithfully toddle home from their day at sea, this time to the bottom of a cliff near Oamaru’s harbour. If you don’t want to wait up, you can come during the day to peer into the nesting boxes in the specially-designed Blue Wing, an information centre telling you everything you need to know about the world’s littlest penguin.
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Boulders Beach, South Africa
Just under an hour’s drive from Cape Town is the delightful Boulders Beach, a rocky, sandy seashore with gently lapping waves – a great spot for a paddle or a picnic. But the stand-out attraction here is the friendly colony of African penguins who call the beach home. The African penguin is larger than the little penguin, growing to around 70cm tall, and you can wander freely among them. The penguins barely bat an eyelid, although you shouldn’t touch them of course.
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Regarded as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia is the gateway to the icy mountains of the Tierra del Fuego in Argentine Patagonia. Not only that, it’s a great spot to set sail on various whale-watching, seal-spotting or penguin-perusing excursions. Tours leave from the harbourside and involve a bus then a boat out to Isla Yécapasela, whose colony consists of over 3,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins and 16 pairs of gentoo penguins, plus a noisy gaggle of rock cormorants. Best of all, the penguins aren’t shy, and will happily pose for photos. Did someone say penguin selfie?
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Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
To see the endangered Galapagos penguin, of which there are only 1,500 left in the wild, your best bet is to join a Galapagos cruise – just make sure it includes stops at the islands of Fernandina or Isabela, where the majority of the penguins hang out. Isla Isabela is the only place on the planet where you’ll find wild penguins in the northern hemisphere, but only just – its northern tip lies around 30 miles over the equator. Watch the birds from the boat, from the shore, or take the plunge and snorkel the clear waters; if you’re very lucky, they might swim over to say hello.
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A remote island 1,336 miles off the coast of Argentina, South Georgia is a penguin hotspot. While there are various species here, it’s the two-million-strong colony of king penguins that grabs all the headlines. These elegant birds, with their yellow chests and sleek feathers, can grow up to a metre tall, and make a right old racket when you get up close. To reach South Georgia, your only option is to take an Antarctic cruise, as there’s no airport or scheduled flights to the island.
Just four penguins are classed as true Antarctic species – the Adélie, chinstrap, gentoo and emperor varieties – so-called because they breed on or near continental Antarctica. To find them, as with South Georgia, your easiest option is a cruise, although it is possible to fly to the ice by helicopter or light aircraft. Loved the world over, and inspiration for the family film Happy Feet, the regal emperor penguin is the world’s largest, growing to a whopping 1.2 metres tall. It’s difficult to know just how many there are on the continent, as they rarely keep still and like to huddle together, but according to the 2012 penguin census, taken from space, there are 595,000 of them, which was double all previous estimates.