Emperor Penguin

The largest, deepest-diving, and least interested in nests of all the penguins, these aptly named Aptenodytes are among the most coveted wildlife attractions in the Antarctic

Emperor Penguin

Region: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea, Weddell Sea

Name: Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri)

Length: 122 cm

Weight: 20-45 kg

Location: The Antarctic

Conservation status: Near Threatened

Diet: Main diet is fish, also consumes crustaceans and cephalopods

Appearance: Black heads and backs, white bellies with yellow trim around the neck

How do Emperor Penguins Hunt?

Emperor Penguins hunt for fish and other marine life in the open seas or in cracks in the ice. They can dive to depths of almost 550 metres, staying underwater for almost 20 minutes at a time. To counter the cold they are able to reduce their metabolism and reduce blood flow to non-essential organs. To deal with the pressure of the water they have evolved solid bones, as opposed to the hollow bones that are a common feature of birds that fly.

Do Emperor Penguins socialize?

Emperor Penguins have been known to work together while foraging. While at sea, a group of penguins is known as a “raft.” On land, they form vast colonies. These colonies consist of thousands of members, 5,000 being the conservative estimate, ranging up to 10,000. These colonies are referred to as a “Rookery,” “Waddle,” or a “Penguinery.” During moments of exposure to the harsh cold of the Antarctic winds the penguins will form a huddled circle. The youngest members will be in the middle where it’s warmest. The adults will form the outer portions of the circle, slowly turning and rotating members in and out, somewhat like a radar image of a hurricane, the adults taking turns being at the coldest outermost layer.

How fast can Emperor Penguins go?

On land Emperor Penguins waddle along at a speed of about 2.5 km per hour. They can get going faster if they find a good downslope – they plop down on their bellies and toboggan their way down to the bottom. While swimming the penguins usually chug along at about 10 km per hour, though they can reach speeds of about 15 km/h if they need to get somewhere in a hurry.

What is the Emperor Penguin’s mating season like?

Emperor Penguins become sexually mature at 3 years of age. January through March is feeding season. It’s essential for the adults to fatten up for the long stretches ahead where they won’t be able to eat anything at all.

Once April hits, the penguins start off on their famous march to their breeding grounds. They’ll usually have to travel at least 50 kilometres (and sometimes in excess of 150 km) across the Antarctic environment. Mating occurs during May. The males arrive a little ahead of the females, readying themselves for their mating calls and displays of courtship. To woo the ladies, a male will push its bill to its chest, inhale, and then gives its call that lasts for about 2 seconds. Once a couple has paired up, they will stand still and extend their necks upward, staring at each other for several minutes. Once this ceremony is complete, the penguins are officially a couple, and will waddle around the colony together. 

To start copulation, they’ll both turn and bow deeply to each other. Emperor Penguins are serially monogamous (staying with one mate for the entire season, but usually choosing a different mate the next season), producing a single egg that weighs around 460 grams. Once the egg is laid, the father will take over the incubation, placing it on his feet and keeping it warm with his breeding patch for 2 months non-stop. He does not eat during this time. Added to the time since they left the breeding grounds, a male will not eat for a total of about 110 days by the time the egg hatches. He may lose as much as 20 kg, reduced to about 20 kg in weight. To conserve heat, the males will often huddle together in a mass, their backs to the wind. 

After laying the egg the mother’s stores of nutrition are exhausted and she immediately heads back off to the sea to feed. She’ll be gone for about two months, possibly not returning before the chick is hatched. The chicks hatch after about 2 months. At this point it is without defences against the Antarctic environment and relies entirely on its parents to feed it and keep it warm. If the mother hasn’t yet returned from its feeding, the father will feed the chick with a substance it coughs up from its esophagus. Mom returns somewhere around the beginning of August, locating her mate by his particular call. She’ll take over feeding the chick and keeping it warm, and it’s now dad’s turn to head to the sea for just shy of a month. About a month and a half after being hatched, the chick will hop down off its parents’ feet and huddle with other chicks in what’s called a “crèche.” Starting in November the chicks will begin to grow their protective feathers, replacing their down, and the parents will stop feeding them. The trek back to the sea begins in December, and the cycle starts all over again.

How long do Emperor Penguins live?

Emperor Penguins live to be about 15-20 years old in the wild.

How many Emperor Penguins are there today?

Estimates taken in the late 1990s estimate about 220,000 breeding pairs.

Do they have any predators?

Emperor Penguin chicks are preyed upon by other birds like the Southern Giant Petrels and South Polar Skua. Orcas (Killer Whales) and Leopard Seals will take adult Emperor Penguins.

8 Points about Emperor Penguins

  • Emperor Penguins are the largest penguins in the world.
  • Emperor Penguins can dive deeper than any other bird.
  • Emperor Penguins don’t build any sort of nests at all. Their feet and brood patches are the only “nest” their chicks get.
  • Like other penguins, Emperor Penguins leap up into the air while swimming. This coats them in micro air bubbles that reduce friction underwater. Scientists think they might also just be doing it for fun.  
  • Emperors (and other penguins) have their distinct tuxedo look because while swimming their white bellies camouflage them against the light above, and their dark backs camouflage them against the depths below.
  • Emperors are the only penguins that breed during the Antarctic’s winter season.
  • The genus name of “Aptenodytes” means "without-wings-diver."
  • Scientists have begun estimating population numbers by counting individuals in colonies from satellite images. 

Related cruises

Weddell Sea - In search of the Emperor Penguin incl. helicopters

Searching for the Elusive Emperor Penguins

OTL22-21 A true expedition, our Weddell Sea cruise sets out to explore the range of the Emperor Penguins near Snow Hill Island. We will visit the area via heli

m/v Ortelius

m/v Ortelius

Cruise date:

14 Nov - 24 Nov, 2021


11300 USD

Ross Sea | Incl. helicopters

Polar Circle & Antarctic Peninsula - Peter I Island - Ross Sea - Macquarie Island - Campbell Island | The most spectacular Antarctic journey ever!

OTL26-22 Sail to the southern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, Peter I Island, the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas into the Ross Sea. Visiting the Ross Ice-s

m/v Ortelius

m/v Ortelius

Cruise date:

13 Jan - 15 Feb, 2022


on request

Ross Sea | Incl. helicopters

Campbell Island - Macquarie Island - Ross Sea - Peter I Island - Antarctic Peninsula & Polar Circle | The most spectacular Antarctic journey ever!

OTL27-22 Sail to the southern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula, Peter I Island, the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas into the Ross Sea. Visiting the Ross Ice-s

m/v Ortelius

m/v Ortelius

Cruise date:

16 Feb - 19 Mar, 2022


27400 USD