On South Georgia, Yellow-Breasted Kings Govern A Vast & Varied Penguin Population

While South Georgia’s noisy, shuffling penguin community comprises four species, including the world’s largest population of Macaroni Penguins, as well as Gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, it is the island’s King Penguins that waddle away with much of the spotlight.

“King Penguins are inquisitive and will often approach [a human visitor], especially if the visitor is quiet and moves slowly,” explains Luke Kenny, a marine biologist and one of Silversea’s most experienced Expedition Team members, who regularly accompanies guests to South Georgia and the Antarctic region.

A King Penguin enjoys the sunshine on Gold Harbor, South Georgia/Lucia Griggi

Kenny’s first trip to South Georgia was more than a decade ago, aboard a fisheries patrol vessel. Today, he guides Silversea’s guests who board Zodiacs and go ashore, ensuring they all know the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators regulations (IAATO)—in place to protect the wildlife and the environment.

These regulations ensure that the island’s penguins are not disturbed. While on South Georgia cruises, guests are to remain at least five meters away from the animals. “Standing still and letting them come to you, or letting them pass by as they go about their own business, is the best experience. If the weather gods are smiling, we can see big colonies—thousands of King Penguins.”

South Georgia is one of the best places to see King Penguins and the species is particularly easy to identify: King Penguins are more than two feet tall (95 centimeters) and weigh up to 35 pounds (16 kilograms). They have a characteristic yellow patch on their breast. “They are beautiful animals, very striking and, well, regal!” says Kenny. Ahead of each landing, he prepares guests for what they’re likely to experience: “The noise generated by so many trumpeting birds and whistling chicks is remarkable; and the smell of soup-like pools of guano is one that you won’t quickly forget!” But nothing can detract from the fact that South Georgia is a pristine wonderland and a place few humans ever get to visit.

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The King Penguin colony of Salisbury Plain, South Georgia, comprises over 100,000 breeding pairs/Lucia Griggi

Seabirds Herald that the Island Is Near

“Various signs will bring South Georgia into view long before your arrival,” explains Jamie Watts, a lecturer and guide who specializes in the Antarctic region and has been visiting the island since 2003. “An almost incredible coincidence of oceanography and biology brings together a massive number of seabirds for dozens of miles in all directions,” he continues. “You have hundreds of tiny Blue-gray Antarctic Prions whizzing over the water, and Wandering Albatrosses riding the airwaves around the ship, like giant gliders.”

Fur seals also porpoise around the ship, and travelers often spot orcas and other whales. And then high, jagged mountain peaks appear on the horizon—nearly 3,000 meters straight up out of the sea. “It’s utterly beautiful, and even after spending a total of nearly 1,000 days on and around the island, I still get butterflies when we approach.”

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A bird soars over the King Penguin colony on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia/Lucia Griggi

Wonders Abound in the Antarctic Zone

The charcoal-black mountains of South Georgia enchant Watts, rising above vivid ice-blue waters inside what’s known as the Antarctic convergence in the South Atlantic Ocean. The island is a British territory that lies 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) north of the Antarctic Circle. There’s no airstrip, so travelers can reach it only by sea. That means only a select few smaller ships can approach close enough to dispatch Zodiacs to visit the most remarkable places, treading lightly as they go.

The dramatic landscapes of South Georgia are reason enough to travel here. Seen here, the remarkable Drygalski Fjord./Lucia Griggi

“On a small expedition ship, you usually get more time ashore and in less crowded circumstances. Zodiacs are necessary to explore deeper and to get ashore in the various bays and fjords around the island,” explains Kenny. “There are regulations concerning how many people can be ashore at one time. Ships larger than 500 passengers can only land at Grytviken, which doesn’t give you anywhere near the full South Georgia experience in terms of wildlife. What makes South Georgia so special isn’t just one thing, it’s all the parts that make the whole.”

Grytviken, one of South Georgia island’s former whaling stations, is well worth visiting for its rich history. Its well-preserved Norwegian Lutheran church stands with its impressive Gothic revival spire above the rusted ruins of the whaling operations. Norwegian whalers erected the structure in 1913 during the industry’s heyday. Today, it’s fittingly known as the Whalers Church. It’s even possible to get married there, as some guests have done in the past.

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Silversea’s Silver Explorer at anchor in Godthul, South Georgia/Lucia Griggi

Lessons in Conservation

Today, the Antarctic region is home to numerous scientific bases, including South Georgia’s King Edward Point Research Station, part of the British Antarctic Survey. Still, Kenny does not shy away from discussing the region’s dark past: populations of wildlife were decimated for commercial reasons. “This ecosystem has rebounded from the devastating effects that mankind wrought on it,” he says.

Antarctic region is home to numerous scientific bases, including South Georgia’s King Edward Point Research Station, part of the British Antarctic Survey. Still, Kenny does not shy away from discussing the region’s dark past: populations of wildlife were decimated for commercial reasons. “This ecosystem has rebounded from the devastating effects that mankind wrought on it,” he says.

An international convention under the Antarctic Treaty System came into force in 1982. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) works to conserve marine life and support scientific studies that ensure fishing in the region is sustainable.

Today, the impacts of climate change are already apparent in the region. Climate change is causing the Antarctic Polar Front (APF) to recede. The APF is a prime source of fish and squid for the King Penguins of South Georgia. It is moving pole-wards, out of the 435-mile (700 kilometer) hunting limit of some King Penguin populations. Scientific modeling published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2018 predicted that some populations of King Penguins will either have to move further south or island-hop in search of food. They may even increase their numbers on South Georgia.

Many guests who embark on Silversea’s expeditions to the Antarctic are already environmentally conscious. But others also report a changed perspective due to the wonders they witness in and around South Georgia, heightening their sense of urgency to protect our planet.

These colonies of penguins, as well as the spectacular frozen landscape and wild oceans, attract travelers from around the world—most of whom leave South Georgia with an enriched appreciation for the natural beauty of our planet and all that inhabits it.

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A Gentoo Penguin tends to its chick in Godthul, South Georgia/Lucia Griggi