Every Bird a King

By the multitudes, breeding king penguins come ashore each year to stake a claim on Possession Island.

This story appears in the September 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.

First comes the Noise, the turbulent din of king penguins calling, fighting, courting, like the ultimate schoolyard uproar. Then the smell hits, a choking reek of fish and ammonia from the birds' guano. But the assault on ear and nose is only a teaser for what awaits the eye. When photographer Stefano Unterthiner climbed a volcanic ridge on Possession Island—a wet, wind-blasted speck in the Crozet archipelago some 1,400 miles north of Antarctica—he found himself staring into a valley filled wall-to-wall with king penguins, tens of thousands of them, all standing as if gathered for a mass rally. The occasion was summer in the Southern Hemisphere—egg-laying season, the time when penguins, so agile and quick in the water, clumsily come ashore to molt, find a partner, and with luck produce a new crop of chicks. Befitting their name, king penguins cut an impressive figure in the seabird court. As tall as three feet and weighing an average of 30 pounds, they are the second largest penguin, after the emperor. The king is also among the most distinctive, with vivid orange detailing on its head, beak, neck, and upper breast.

On Possession Island king penguins have established six breeding colonies, the largest one on 90 acres of boulder-strewn ground that French researchers have dubbed Jardin Japonais, or "Japanese garden." Far from a meditative space, as Unterthiner discovered, the colony seethes with the drama of birds defending plots little larger than a manhole cover. King penguins do not build nests. In their constricted space, the male and female take turns incubating a single egg balanced on their feet and covered by a loose fold of skin. They brood the newborn chick in the same way until it grows plumage thick enough to withstand the elements.

During this three-month period, the adults peck at all trespassers. The main offenders are petrels and skuas, avian predators partial to eggs and chicks. Researchers figure that a king penguin parent devotes four hours and 2,000 pecks a day to fighting off interlopers.

"For all the crowding, there was no sense of chaos," says Unterthiner, who stayed on the island from December to April. "The penguins looked very organized, almost like they were in military formation, each guarding its ground."

King penguins have established colonies across seven islands and island groups in the southern reaches of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The islands are crucially located near the Antarctic Convergence, an oceanic boundary where cold polar water meets and mixes with warmer subantarctic seas, producing a rich feeding zone. Prodigious divers and swimmers, king penguins travel 250 miles or more to feed in the depths on squid and bioluminescent lanternfish.

Numbering an estimated 2.2 million pairs, the king penguin population is in good shape. Yet a recent study in the Crozet Islands, where half of all king penguins breed, reveals that warming seas are reducing food resources near the colonies and warns that climate change may pose a serious threat to the species' long-term survival. But for now, the clamor, the stink, and the pecking all bear witness to king penguins still in their full glory.