IT Contributor Andrew Evans offers an all-inclusive guide to all things penguin.
Penguins are never passé. Be they marching or tapping their happy feet toward another sequel, the little black and white birds are still very much in everybody’s minds and hearts. I also imagine that kids who play with plastic penguins in their Happy Meals grow up to be bigger kids who want to see the birds in real life, in the wild.
Admittedly, live penguins are so astonishingly cool–the way they tilt their heads from side to side to get a good look at you, the strange braying chorus they sing, and that distinctive penguin smell that’s part fishy dishwasher detergent and part dusty, old attic. Travelers often bemoan the fact that penguin Grand Central is in almost-inaccessible Antarctica, a destination better suited for scientists, explorers, and millionaires. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to cross wild penguins off your wish list. The southern hemisphere is filled with alternatives for seeing wild penguins in their natural habitats.
The following locations offer options for safe and sustainable human interaction with wild penguins:
1. Isla Magdalena, Chile: This lone clump of rocks in the Strait of Magellan is home to over 50,000 breeding pairs of adorable Magellanic penguins. After a one-hour ferry ride from the city of Punta Arenas, the boat drops you off for a good 90-minute visit with the birds. A marked path guides you safely through the penguin nests and up to the island’s lighthouse for a remarkable view. (Insider’s tip: in case you’re tempted to use your hands to climb up those giant mountains of yellow ‘dirt’ for a better view, don’t. That isn’t dirt.)
2. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador: The Galápagos penguin is the world’s northernmost penguin species. They live right on the equator, but look and act a lot like the penguins from colder climes. The best viewing spots are on Isabela island (the largest in the archipelago) and the west coast of Fernandina island.
3. Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town, South Africa: Gigantic granite boulders and tropical-looking turquoise inlets are the exotic home for the African or jackass penguin. A system of raised wooden walkways leads you right into the heart of penguin territory, including the penguins’ own sandy beach. Afterwards, enjoy a swim at the people’s beach next door.
4. Oamaru, New Zealand: The Oamaru blue penguin colony is a sustainable tourism success story that’s definitely worth the journey down under. Every year, tens of thousands of tourists come to see approximately 130 breeding pairs of the smallest (and cutest) penguin species in the world. Part wildlife reserve/part auditorium and museum, the center allows human-penguin interaction with minimal impact to the birds. The most exhilarating moments take place after dusk (around 10:00 p.m. in the austral summer and 6:00 p.m. in the winter) when the penguins swim back to shore holding on to one another in “rafts”.
5. Phillip Island, Australia: A mere 90-minute drive from the city of Melbourne, Phillip Island Nature Park offers visitors access to a nightly “Penguin Parade.” Bring a picnic for the boardwalk while you watch the little blue penguins coming home.
6. Falkland Islands: The Falklands has become the ultimate diversionary tactic for Antarctic-obsessed tourists and contains the largest concentration of rockhopper penguins in the world, along with four other penguin species. It’s difficult NOT to see a penguin in the Falklands.
Closer to home: Before you buy an expensive long-haul flight to the other side of the world, check out the penguins nearest you. Here’s a current list of zoos with penguin populations:
• Central Park Zoo (New York, NY)
• Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, WA)
• Maryland Zoo (Baltimore, MD)
• Rosamond Gifford Zoo (Syracuse, NY)
• Oregon Zoo (Portland, OR)
• St. Louis Zoo (St. Louis, MO)
• Lowry Park Zoo (Tampa, FL)
• Philadelphia Zoo (Philadelphia, PA)
Read More: Rolf Potts got up close to the little guys in his piece, “My Own Private Falklands” in the July/August 2008 issue of Traveler. Learn more about Darwin’s travels through the Galápagos from the National Geographic Channel’s presentation of “Darwin’s Secret Notebooks.”