Henry Páll Wulff
Expedition Guide, Naturalist
Photographer, Author, Podcaster, Traveler, Educator
If you think of the Antarctic, you almost inevitably think of what is probably the most symbolic animal in the south - penguins. Living almost exclusively south of the equator - the Galapagos penguin is found on the edge to the Northern Hemisphere - those curious fellas might look a bit awkward when they waddle around on land. But as soon as you experience them in water you realise, those aquatic flightless birds are perfectly adapted for a life in the ocean. They have evolved into the most efficient swimmers and divers of all birds and some species spend 75% of their time at sea — the most of any birds.
As the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, Antarctica is mostly a huge, lifeless desert. Its largest land animal is a wingless midge, Belgica antarctica, whose adults live about a week and we talked about already in a bit more detail in Episode 84. But most people wonder, why’s the midge the largest land animal of Antarctica? Shouldn’t it be the penguin? Here starts the first misconception. Even though most people will experience penguins on land, mainly during their breeding season, they are no land animals. And although they cannot fly, they are birds. Penguins are the most common birds in the Antarctic. Living in colonies with populations larger than some cities, and surviving in the harshest of conditions, it is no wonder that penguins are seen as the emblem of Antarctica. However, of the 17 different species of penguin, only two (Emperor and Adélie) make the Antarctic continent their true home, although others (Gentoo, Chinstrap and Macaroni) breed on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, where conditions are less harsh. King penguins and Magellanic penguins only breed on the warmer more northerly subantarctic islands or the southernmost tip of the Americas.
But the real home of all penguins is the cooler waters of the Southern Hemisphere. In the whole of Antarctica, the ocean is the really productive, biodiverse realm. There are loads of species and very high abundance in places. And that’s where penguins find their food. Antarctic waters brim with krill, a tiny crustacean that feeds large whales, including blue, humpback, and minke whales, as well as penguins. Penguin wings are stiff, short flippers to propel them underwater — they literally fly through the sea. Their legs are set far back in the body, and together with the tail form an underwater rudder to their perfectly streamlined bodies. Their cruising speed in water is about 10km per hour. To catch their breath and to save energy while swimming, they leap clear of the water every few meters.
They are excellent divers, descending to depths of over 250 meters, though most of their dives will be in the top 10 meters. Unlike flying birds, their bones are dense to make diving easier. Underwater they are every bit as fearsome to their prey as lions are to theirs!
Although no one knows for sure where the name ‘penguin’ comes from, there are a few theories about it. It could come from the Welsh ‘pen gwyn’, which means ‘white head’, or from the Latin ‘pinguis’, referring to the fat or blubber of the bird. The name penguin was first given to another type of bird, the auk (also a large, flightless, black and white bird). However, it seems it’s quite a task to pronounce the word itself, even for skilled actors and speakers like Benedict Cumberbatch.