The Falkland Islands aren’t synonymous with penguins, but they should be. You may consider penguins to make their home in icy, snowy climates, with icebergs floating around. But that’s not the case.
This archipelago has been described as “one of the world’s great penguin capitals”. In fact, it’s believed that an estimated one million penguins arrive there every summer to breed.
These black and white birds (some with some seriously colorful decorations) turn up to meet their mate, find a new partner and raise their young. Five of the seventeen known species of penguins breed on the Falkland Islands: king, gentoo, rockhopper, magellanic and macaroni. It has the world’s largest population of gentoo penguins.
Needless to say, the Falkland Islands go hand in hand with penguins. So here’s some detailed information on the penguins in the Falklands – and where to find them.
Since there are really few tourists, whenever you see penguins in the Falklands you can actually get really close to them. However, be respectful of their space and always keep a distance of at least 2 meters (6 feet) when observing them. I know my photos look like they were taken from very close, but I just used a very long lens!
The 5 Species Of Falkland Islands Penguins
Magellanic penguins take their name from Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who circumnavigated the globe between 1519 and 1522 – the first time it had been done. Magellan himself spotted the birds in 1520 during this voyage.
The birds themselves are medium-sized penguins that grow to between 61 and 76 centimeters (24 to 30 inches) tall. They weigh between 2.7 and 6.5 kilograms (6 and 14.3 pounds).
You’ll be able to spot them from the black-and-white abdomens of the adults, as well as the two black bands that run across their chest (these are kind of horseshoe-shaped). They also have a black head with a white band that runs above their eyes around the back of their ear to the chin.
Magellanic penguins live up to around 10 to 15 years in the wild; the oldest known magellanic penguin died in 2022 at the age of 40 in San Francisco Zoo. They feed predominantly by catching cuttlefish, krill, squid and a variety of crustaceans. When they dive to hunt for food, magellanic penguins regularly reach depths of up to 50 meters (164 feet). As they catch their prey they naturally ingest seawater, but they’re able to drink it due to salt-excreting glands on their body.
The penguins usually hang out in big groups for hunting, but when it comes to breeding season magellanic penguins gather together in nesting colonies. These can be found along the coast of Argentina, southern Chile and the Falkland Islands. The breeding season starts with the adults arriving at these colonies in September, and runs until late March, when the chicks become old enough to leave the colonies themselves.
You’ll find magellanic penguin nests built underneath bushes for protection or buried in burrows. The incubation of the eggs lasts anywhere between 39 and 42 days. Both parents take turns in looking after the eggs, taking shifts of around 15 days each. The chicks are also reared by both parents, who feed the chicks every three days, for around a month before they are allowed to stray by themselves.
But it’s not just one season that the parents meet, mate and bring up a chick together. The same pairs meet year-after-year, and return to the same burrow; usually the male returns first and waits for his partner. The females know which is their partner just from their call, which is so loud it sounds like that of a donkey – hence their nickname “jackasses”.
Once the breeding season is finished, magellanic penguins head north for winter – usually the shores of Peru and Brazil.
Gentoo penguins were first described in a scientific manner by Johann Reinhold Forster in 1781, who circumnavigated the globe with Captain James Cook. The name, however, is unclear. The actual term “gentoo” was an Anglo-Indian term used to refer to Hindus, rather than Muslims, in the Indian subcontinent.
Whether the penguins are derived from this word is up for debate, however, as the word gentoo is similar to Juanito, which is a Spanish version of Johnny; another colloquial name for the gentoo penguin is “Johnny penguin”.
The gentoo penguin can be easily spotted by its bright orange bill and the wide white stripe that extends across its head. The penguin’s feet are also particularly prominent – these are long and yellowish in color. It is also the third-largest species of penguins after emperor and king penguins. They can grow up to heights of 71-78 centimeters (28-31 inches) and can weigh in at 8.5 kilometers (19 pounds).
There are several sub-species of gentoo penguins, the most northerly (and largest) of which are found in the Falkland Islands. These can be up to 10 centimeters (3.5 inches) taller than their southern counterparts.
Gentoo penguins may not be the tallest or the heaviest penguins, but they are certainly the fastest underwater swimmers. They can zip through the waters at speeds that reach 36 kilometers per hour (22 miles per hour)! They’re also particularly well adapted for the extreme harsh, cold climates that they inhabit.
With a breeding population of over 600,000, colonies of gentoo penguins can be found both along the shoreline and inland, with nests usually found around tufts of grass. Gentoos breed on many of the subantarctic islands, and one of the main ones is located on the Falkland Islands.
Like other penguin species, gentoos are monogamous. Uniquely, cheating is frowned upon. If there is any adultery, the offending gentoo penguin will be banished from the colony.
Their nests can be spotted easily; they comprise a circle of piled stones. Impressively, these can be up to 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) in height and the stones are aggressively protected by the breeding pair. They are particularly important to the breeding process; it’s believed that the male penguin can win over a female by providing her with a particularly good stone for the nest.
When it comes to nesting, two eggs are laid and the parents share the duties of incubating, changing their watch daily. After around 35 days, the chicks hatch, spending 30 days in the nest and then joining a creche in the colony alongside other young gentoos.
Rockhoppers are particularly distinctive penguins due to their fuzzy eyebrows, and they are among the most interesting penguins in the Falklands. With several subspecies of rockhopper, it’s the southern rockhopper penguin that calls the Falkland Islands home. They were first described by English naturalist George Edwards (often called the “father of British ornithology”) in the first edition of A Natural History of Uncommon Birds in 1743. They were then formally described by Johann Reinhard Forster in 1781.
The southern rockhopper penguin has around one million known mating pairs, with around two-thirds of the world’s population breeding on the Falkland Islands and islands around Patagonia. Rather than migrating, the birds tend to stick around in the waters just offshore from their colonies, making nests inland or on clifftops (and sometimes at sea level).
Breeding season for these Falkland Islands penguins runs between September and November, with two eggs being laid by a breeding pair. However, sadly only one is usually incubated. After 32-34 days, the rockhopper chick hatches, and the young penguin joins the colony’s nursery after 26 days.
Rockhoppers become well known for their complex foraging activities, adapting their behavior to fit their environment and using different strategies depending on the conditions. Studies have shown that they travel as far as 150 kilometers (93 miles) away, with foraging occurring anywhere as long as 15 hours a day; they leave at dawn and return at dusk.
The cute, black and white penguins with yellow crests are the smallest penguins in the Falklands, reaching a height of between 45 and 58 centimeters (18 to 23 inches) and weighing up to 3.5-4 kilograms (7.7-9 pounds). To add to their colorful appearance, their eyes are also red!
Penguins are usually quite awkward birds. It can be difficult for them to get around obstacles, so they often slide around on their tummies or climb haphazardly using their flippers to help. But rockhoppers are different. Instead, these nimble birds often jump across crags and over obstacles – a trait that gives them their name. Though other penguin species do this too, rockhoppers were the first to be spotted exhibiting this behavior.
Macaroni penguins are one of six species of crested penguins, and you may think macaroni comes from pasta, but that’s not the case. It actually comes from the over-the-top outfits worn by late 18th-century dandies known as “macaronis”.
These city-dwelling fashionistas regularly donned extravagant get-ups, so you can see how the name caught on for this penguin; with its impressive yellow crest, it looks rather distinguished itself – particularly against the black feathers of its face.
This name is believed to have been given to them by British sailors in the Falkland Islands in the early 19th century. They were first scientifically described among the species of penguins in the Falklands in 1837 by German naturalist Johann Friedrich von Brandt.
There are over 18 million individual macaroni penguins in the world, making them the most numerous penguin species. And numbering up to 100,000 individuals, their colonies are some of the largest and densest of all penguin species.
They’re a pretty hungry lot, too; the species eats more marine animals than any other species of seabird! Their diet consists mainly of crustaceans and small fish.
This large penguin species can grow to a height of 70 centimeters (28 inches) and weigh, on average, 5.5 kilograms (12 pounds). After breeding in summer, these penguins head out into the sea for the other half of the year. During this time they travel a lot, it seems.
One study in 2009 found that macaroni penguins traveled over 10,000 kilometers from the subantarctic Desolation Islands to the Indian Ocean during the winter months.
Like other penguins, macaroni penguins are particularly social birds and their colonies involve a lot of social interaction. When you go to visit them, you’ll see a lot of vocal and visual displays from the penguins.
These behaviors get even more intense during the breeding period, and quieten down again when the male macaroni penguins are out at sea hunting. You might spot macaroni penguins jousting, in which both penguins lock bills and try to unseat the other.
Other behavior includes a submissive walk, in which the penguin walks through the colony with their feathers flattened, their flippers forward and their head bowed.
Courtship for macaroni penguins is also a lively affair. Starting a few days after the females arrive at the colonies, there are some pretty colorful displays put on by the males to attract their partners and advertise their attractiveness.
This includes trumpeting, wobbling from side to side and extending their necks. Mating usually takes place in late October, with eggs being laid at the start of November.
Their nests aren’t overly impressive, just a shallow burrow with a few stones and pebbles to delineate it. Incubation lasts around 36 days, with both parents sharing the process.
The male macaroni penguin cares for the newborn chick, keeping it warm until its feathers have grown; it’s the female’s role to bring food to the chick every couple of days. Once their feathers have grown, they leave to the creche to keep warm. After 70 days, once their adult feathers are fully grown, the chicks then go off by themselves.
One peculiar thing about the macaroni penguins in the Falklands is that they can actually be spotted living among the rockhoppers. In fact, there is a hybrid macaroni-rockhopper couple that lives on Bleaker Island (these hybrids are actually quite common), and when I visited I was able to spot them with an egg! Needless to say, everyone in the Falkland Islands is very excited to see this and can’t wait for the egg to hatch.
My favorite species of penguins in the Falklands, I find them so elegant!
This species is the second-largest of all penguins, second only to the emperor penguin. The king penguin grows up to 95 centimeters tall (39 inches) and weighs between 12 and 15 kilograms (26.5 to 33 pounds). They actually look very much like their larger cousins, and are, in fact, closely related to them.
However, they are distinguished by a solid band of orange on their cheeks and a more orange upper chest. Usually, you won’t see emperor and king penguins anywhere in the world together anyway.
The population of king penguins in the Falkland Islands was once under threat due to whaling activities. With no trees in the Falkland Islands, whalers used penguin oil for lamps, heating and cooking; they also ate the birds and their eggs. By the 1920s, king penguins were almost completely wiped out.
Conservation, however, is still an issue. In total there are estimated to be around 1.1 million mating pairs of king penguins.
King penguins usually start breeding at around 5 years old and are described as “serially monogamous”, meaning they have one mate only and they return to that mate faithfully, year after year. The king penguin has a particularly long breeding cycle: it takes around 15 months from the laying of the egg until the chick can fledge its feathers.
Birds return to their colonies for breeding around September, with pairs that were unable to breed the year before arriving even earlier. When an egg is laid it is incubated for around 55 days; both parents take turns incubating the egg, with shifts running between 6 and 18 days.
Similar to the emperor penguin, the king penguin doesn’t build nests. Instead, it also balances the oval egg on its feet, allowing the egg to incubate in a “brood pouch”. Once hatching begins it can be a long process, often taking up to 3 days.
After this, the guard phase begins, in which the king penguin chick is totally reliant on its parents, spending most of its time on the feet of its parents sheltering in the brood pouch. During the guard phase, they alternate shifts every week, with one parent going off to forage for food.
After around 40 days, when the chick is a lot bigger, the chick wanders off from its parents and joins the creche. Here, alongside many other chicks, it is looked after by a group of adults.
At this time, most parents leave the chick in the creche and go off by themselves. Due to the long time it takes for king penguins to become fully fledged, parents time the hatching so the chick will not have to fend for itself in the winter, which is the harshest season for foraging.
Best Places To See Penguins In The Falklands
Carcass Island is known to be one of the best places to see gentoo and magellanic penguins in the Falklands. Situated in the northwest of the Falkland Islands archipelago, it is reached by an hour-long flight from Stanley. Penguins can be found all over Carcass Island, and are locally known as jackass penguins, due to their donkey-like braying call.
This sound becomes a distinctive soundtrack to the Falkland Islands in summer. There are estimated to be 140,000 breeding pairs of magellanic penguins in the Falkland Islands.
Also found on Carcass Island are gentoo penguins, who breed on the island. The two main breeding colonies can be found at Leopard Beach to the south and on Jason Hill. The gentoos stay on the island throughout the year, subsisting on a diet of krill, small fish and squid.
Carcass Bay (West Falkland)
The beautiful white sand beach at Carcass Bay is found on the island of West Falkland. It’s best reached on a hike from the nearby road, which is a great way to see both the gentoo and magellanic penguins who live here in the summer season.
During the hike along the side of the ridge towards Carcass Bay, you’ll be able to catch sight of the rockhopper colony, too, which are also summer-only residents. They nest in a grassy area towards the bay. At the far end of the beach, the magellanic penguin burrows can be found around a kilometer from the coastline itself.
North of West Falkland lies the island of Pebble Island. It’s home to a wide variety of wildlife, including penguins, of course. In fact, to the north of the hills on the island is where you’ll find four different species of penguins: macaroni, rockhopper, gentoo and magellanic penguins.
These all have colonies on Pebble Island – some seasonal, some all year round (gentoo penguins, for example), so the likelihood is that you’ll spot at least one penguin species on your trip. During my visit, I spotted lots of rockhopper penguins, and a pair of macaroni living among the rockhoppers.
Named after a corruption of the word “breaker” due to the strong waves that crash along its shoreline, Bleaker Island is where you’ll find a year-round population gentoo penguins. The main colony is located on the aptly named Penguin Hill, which overlooks the north end of Sandy Bay.
As well as gentoo penguins, you’ll also see magellanic penguins. Their burrows can be found in an area called Long Gulch, to the south of Sandy Bay. Also near here are rockhopper penguins. Macaroni penguins have also been known to breed here, in fact right among the rockhoppers, with whom they sometimes mate.
Volunteer Point (East Falkland)
Over on the east coast of East Falkland island, about 2 hours drive by 4×4 or 30 minuted by helicopter from Stanley, is Volunteer Point. This headland is home to colonies of gentoo, magellanic and king penguins. Specifically, there are around 3,500 pairs of gentoo penguins, 2,500 magellanic penguins and 2,000 king penguins.
The king penguin population here is the largest in the Falkland Islands, and their colony can be found on the northern part of Volunteer Point.
Guided tours to Volunteer Point cost between £200 and £250 GBP (that’s about $230 to $290 USD), including transportation and a meal. The price is per car, so the tour is cheaper if you can share it. You can book your tour via a local agent or via the tourist information point located near the Jetty. Alternatively, you can buy your tour of Volunteer point here or here.
Whale Point (East Falkland)
Most people visit Whale Point to spot Elephant Seals (together with Carcass Island, this is a favorite area for these large mammals), but the area – which you can reach in about 1.5 to 2 hours by 4×4 car from Stanley, is also home to the gentoo and magellanic penguins.
These other posts will be useful when planning a trip to the Falkland Islands:
- 6 Best Reasons To Visit The Falkland Islands
- How To Plan A Trip To The Falkland Islands
- The Best Things To Do In The Falklands
- The Most Interesting Facts About The Falkland Islands
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of The Falkland Island as part of the #ilovethefalklandislands campaign. I wish to thank them and Blogilicious for organizing an incredible trip. The views expressed in this post remain my own.