You don’t have to go to Antarctica to see wild penguins

penguins in South Africa

Visitors to Cape Town, South Africa, can view endangered African penguins at Boulder Beach.

Paul Mannix/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Antarctica’s remoteness, majesty and unique wildlife have made the frozen continent an attractive — if expensive — location for tourism. (For me, though, it’s far too cold.) Since the 1950s, when small-scale tourism to this southern land began, the number of visitors has grown to more than 40,000 per year. That doesn’t sound like much — New York City gets 55 million visitors annually — but it’s enough to have a negative impact, scientists have said.

“Rapidly growing human activity is accelerating threats to biodiversity,” Justine Shaw of the University of Queensland in Australia and colleagues wrote last month in PLOS Biology. (Tourism wasn’t the only problem; development in the name of science shares some of the blame, according to the study.)

The study by Shaw and colleagues provided the inspiration for a recent episode of the HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which produced an “anti-tourist” commercial for the continent. But, Oliver noted, it might be difficult to sway people from visiting. “I know we’re not supposed to go to Antarctica, but there are free penguins and sno-cones there,” he quipped.

But we have sno-cones at home, and there are plenty of other places to see wild penguins without having to trek that far south. Here are five species you can easily visit outside Antarctica (but please remember to view them only from afar — penguins bite):

African penguin: The only species regularly found breeding on the African continent, this bird grows to about 60 to 70 centimeters tall. Each penguin can be distinguished by the pattern of black stripes and spots on its chest, which varies from bird to bird. Unfortunately, these penguins are listed as endangered, due to threats such as commercial fishing (which has reduced the availability of the fish they eat), oil spills and climate change. The birds can be found along the coasts of Namibia and South Africa. But one of the best spots to see them is just a short drive from Cape Town, South Africa. The Boulders colony, which grew from two breeding pairs in 1982 to more than 2,000 today, can be viewed from the beach or a wheelchair-friendly boardwalk.

Fairy penguin: These tiny, blue-and-white birds (also called little penguins or blue penguins) live along the southern coasts of Australia and Chile. They are common, numbering 350,000 to 600,000, and their promptness in returning to the same area every evening makes viewing the birds — without disturbing them — easy. Penguin-viewing facilities can be found in Australia at Phillips Island (near Melbourne), Penguin Island (near Perth) and Kangaroo Island, as well Oamaru in New Zealand.

Galapagos penguin: These are the only penguins found living north of the equator. During the day, they hang out in the cool Cromwell Current, returning to land at night. Only about 49 centimeters tall, they are vulnerable to predation by feral cats, dogs and rats. And the endangered birds have also been negatively affected by oil spills, fishing and El Niño, which decreases the availability of their fishy prey. Despite their small numbers, Galapagos penguins are easy to view. There are large populations on Fernandina and Isabela islands, as well as smaller ones on Bartolome, Floreana and Santa Cruz. The best time to see the penguins is during the breeding season, May to January. But as the Galapagos National Park Service limits access to some areas, it’s best to research sites before making a trek to see the birds.

Magellanic penguin: These medium-size penguins can be found breeding on the coast of the southern parts of South America. The same pairs of birds mate year after year — the male finds the burrow he used during the previous mating season and waits for his girl to return — and raise their chicks together. Scientists who have studied the effect of tourists on these penguins have found that the birds generally don’t get stressed out by the presence of humans. The world’s largest colony can be found in Punta Tomba, Argentina, between September and April. But the birds can also be visited at spots in Chile and the Falkland Islands, where they hang out with king penguins.

King penguin: This large species — second only to the emperor of Antarctica — hangs out on a number of sub-Antarctic islands, Tierra del Fuego in South America and the Falkland Islands. (A king penguin also used to hang out in the comics section of the newspaper; Berkeley Breathed’s character Opus belonged to this species.) These are deep-diving birds, regularly reaching depths of 100 to 300 meters, where they spend minutes hunting for meals of small fish and squid. Because these penguins are often found in remote regions, visiting them is a bit more difficult. Your best bet might be the southernmost point in Chile.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has a B.A. in biology from Cornell University and an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She writes about ecology, plants and animals.

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