Best Time to See Emperor Penguins in Antarctica

March 8, 2021 Doug O'Neill

The Emperor penguin population at the Snow Hill Island rookery is estimated to number about 10,000, including
adults and baby chicks. Photo: David Merron

They’re monogamous. The father does his equal share of nursing the offspring. Their sense of community is one of the most impressive in the wildlife kingdom. It’s the only animal to dwell on open ice during the winter. They can withstand blizzards with winds blowing up to 200 kilometres per hour, and thrive in temperatures as low as -60°C (-76°F). They can dive deeper than any other bird. And they’re the tallest of their species, a fact that prompted polar adventurer Nadine Ponte to describe them as “the giants of the penguin species.

Is it any wonder that Emperor penguins fascinate wildlife-lovers? Quark Expeditions marine biologist and expedition guide Nick Engelmann believes "no creature is more emblematic of Antarctica than the Emperor penguin."

 Where to see Emperor penguins

Before we talk about the best time to see Emperor penguins in Antarctica, let’s chat about where to see Emperor penguins. While there have been sightings of the tallest penguin species in several Antarctic locations between 66°and 77° south latitude (Taylor Glacier in Victoria Land, Amundsen Bay, the Dion Islands and Heard Island, South Georgia), Snow Hill Island in the Weddell sea is the destination most commonly associated with Emperor penguins. 

Biologists estimate there are about 4,000 breeding pairs of Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island. Factor in their babies and you’ve got a potential population of 10,000 of the most intriguing species of penguins in one place.

Male Emperor penguins share equally in the rearing of their offspring, often during extended
absences of the mother. Photo: David Merron

Snow Hill Island is not only where to see Emperor penguins, but it’s where you’ll find one of the harshest polar climates imaginable. Snow Hill is a mostly snow-and-ice- covered island stretching 33 kilometres long and about 12 kilometres wide, just off the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s remote, hard-to-reach (requiring companies like Quark Expeditions to bring visitors by ice-breaker and helicopter). If you’re researching where to see Emperor penguins, you’ll soon discover that Snow Hill Island is regarded as the the most famous Emperor penguin rookery that travelers can visit by polar expedition ship.  

Reaching Snow Hill Island is a challenge only a handful of travelers have achieved. In addition to crossing the notoriously rough Drake Passage, resolute voyagers must navigate the icy Weddell Sea by the sturdiest of polar ships, and then take a helicopter flight before completing the trek on foot to the Emperor penguin rookery. Read Kerry Peter's first-hand account of her firs trip to the Emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island with Quark Expeditions. 

What Time of Year Does an Emperor penguin lay eggs?

Emperor penguins, known for being one of the few serial monogamists in the wild, begin courting in March or April and the female typically lays her one egg in May or June. There are no materials to build nests. Emperor penguins breed and lay their eggs on ice. But, like the eggs of any species, they must be kept warm. That’s where Emperor penguins have adapted over the ages. Once the female lays her eggs—she leaves the colony to go searching for food, and is often gone for two to four months. Before she does so, she transfers the egg to her male partner who tenderly puts it on his foot and covers it with its skinfold, a warm layer of feathered skin often called a brood pouch.Asking what time of year does an Emperor penguin lay eggs is a good starting point especially if you’re keen to see baby chicks.

Next, you’ll need to understand a little more about Emperor penguin egg hatching. With the mother gone for an extended period in search of food, how does Emperor penguin egg hatching actually take place? As explained above, the male has custody of the egg in its skinfold—but how is he able to survive? He can’t fly off in search of food with an egg tucked into the flap of skin above its feet. Surprisingly, the male Emperor doesn’t eat during this period. He consumes no food while incubating the egg, but relies on the body fat he has accumulated over the summer period. The male typically loses about 45% of its body weight during this period. (You can learn more about the survival rates of Emperor penguins in this helpful infographic. 

Interestingly, thousand-fold rookeries of penguins have devised a sociable way of maintain body heat to protect and keep their eggs warm during the nesting period. Unlike some other penguin species which are known to bicker and compete for nesting space, Emperor penguins will form a communal huddle—in the hundreds and thousands—to keep warm. They shuffle around so each Emperor penguin takes its turn on the colder outer edges of the huddle and then works his way into the warmer centre, each male taking its turn. 

The female arrives back around August in time for the chicks to hatch. She will take over feeding the chicks, allowing the male to head off in search of much-needed food. Both parents rear the chick together.  

Unlike some other penguin species, the Emperor penguins are known for their communal living habits, both for safety and for heat preservation when males are incubating the eggs.  Photo: David Merron

Best month to visit Antarctica to see Emperor penguins

Ideally, October or November would be the best month to visit Antarctica to see Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island. That’s largely due to weather and ice conditions which permit a polar expedition ship to cut through the ice-covered Weddell Sea – plus you want to time your visit after the chicks are hatched and have grown a little before they head off on their own. The team of polar experts at Quark Expeditions—which leads the way in conducting visits to the famous Emperor penguin rookery—has identified October or November as the best month to visit Antarctica to see Emperor penguins on Snow Hill Island.

Trips to see Emperor penguins

For travelers searching for trips to see Emperor penguins, it’s helpful to know that Quark Expeditions leads the way in hosting trips to see Emperor Penguins at Snow Hill Island. After 30 years of exploring the Polar Regions, they’ve determined the best time to see Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

In 2018, Quark Expeditions scheduled four trips to see Emperor penguins during the period of October to November, which they determined the best times to see Emperor penguins in Antarctica. The timing of these trips is based on a number of factors—including weather and ice conditions. Snow Hill Island is not only remote but it’s hard to reach. Ice can extend hundreds of miles from its shores, making it impossible for some of the world’s biggest ships. However, Quark Expeditions has succeeded by bringing into its fleet the legendary Russian vessel Kapitan Khelbnikov, the famous ice-strengthened ship that has circumnavigated Antarctica twice and the Arctic once. This was was the first ship ever to successfully bring travelers on trips to see Emperor penguins in Antarctica. Quark Expeditions made its first successful landing at the famous Emperor penguin colony in 2004.

At time of writing, no trips are scheduled — but stay tuned to our Snow Hill Island expedition page  for information when trips to see Emperor penguins become available. In meantime, you can fulfill your desire to see penguins in Antarctica by exploring other scheduled trips, such as South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula: Penguin Safari and Crossing the Circle: Southern Expedition

 

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

A love of nature and writing has enabled Doug O'Neill to visit almost 50 countries around the world—and to immerse himself in some of the most incredible nature settings. Doug's role as Brand Copywriter at Quark Expeditions has been a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies and later a Certificate in Journalism. When not travelling, Doug is usually hiking: he's a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He's the co-author of a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” published by Firefly Books in 2019. Says Doug: "Few destinations rival the Polar Regions—not just for the staggering beauty and incredible wildlife, but for the transformative experiences that occur the moment you set foot in the most remote parts of the world."

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