King Penguins

I admit I have a thing for penguins . . .

. . . but then again, who doesn’t? Perhaps it’s the way they mimic us humans: walking upright, nuzzling their mates, or slapping each other on the back. Or else it’s the way they are different from us: surviving and thriving in the most inhospitable places on planet Earth.

Whatever the reason, watching penguins in the wild is far better than anything you’ll ever see on afternoon television. They are marvelous birds and so highly entertaining in real life that I keep finding ways to travel back to their cold and southern world.

Of all the species I’ve encountered in the world, king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) have been the most numerous, blanketing the beaches of the island of South Georgia (where I am currently and where I saw the very rare all-black king penguin), as well as other sub-Antarctic islands I have visited (e.g. Australia’s Macquarie Island).

Poised and brilliantly colored, king penguins are the second largest species in the world, smaller than more iconic emperor penguins (of Happy Feet fame). Although, for at least a century before Antarctic exploration, king penguins were thought to be the largest, hence their original nickname “king”.

We have projected our own human hierarchies onto these birds, as well as our human emotions, so that visiting the many penguin colonies of South Georgia naturally leads to deeper contemplation about human behavior. How are we the same as these birds? How are we different?

These are the questions I ask myself every time I am perched at the edge of a screaming colony of king penguins. Like humans, king penguins are comical and beautiful, but also tragic and severe, and like humans, king penguins can behave so lovingly and with such care, or act defensively and mean-spirited.

I have spent the last three days hunkered down with a collective total of nearly one million resident penguins on South Georgia. Honestly, they are beginning to feel like old friends, and on this voyage from one continent to another, I have developed an even stronger affection for this particular species.

And so I dedicate this post to the king penguins — perhaps “second” in size and popularity, but forever kingly just the same.