Penguins might be rare to see in the wild, but that doesn’t mean you have to go all the way to Antarctica to catch a glimpse of them. There are between 17 and 19 species of penguin that currently exist on Earth, and most are found in the Southern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the penguin population is declining because of climate change, overfishing, and pollution — but there are ways we can help.
The best time to pay wild penguins a visit is during summer in the Southern Hemisphere (December to February). This is when the charming tuxedoed birds spend time breeding and nesting onshore. Here are five places outside of Antarctica to see the lovable birds from a safe distance in their natural environment.
Cape Town, South Africa
The southern tip of South Africa is home to the African penguin, particularly at Boulders Beach just outside of Cape Town. African penguins are considered endangered, with their population declining 80% over the past 50 years. The penguin colony in Africa — whose habitat stretches from southern Namibia all the way south to Port Elizabeth, South Africa — first arrived in 1983. The birds migrated from Dyer Island in South Africa to reach the plentiful food source at Boulders Beach.
Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now more than 3,000 African penguins living at Boulders Beach. Boulders Beach is located within Table Mountain National Park, and aside from penguin-watching, the park is also great for swimming, hiking, and wind-surfing.
Tierra del Fuego, Argentina and Chile
The Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southernmost part of South America is separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan. Two-thirds of the area belong to Chile and one-third belongs to Argentina. The islands of Tierra del Fuego are where Magellanic, Humboldt, rockhopper, gentoo, and king penguins can be spotted in the wild.
For your best chance at seeing the birds, you'll have to travel to the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia, Argentina. From there, you can find day tours to visit the penguins, and some even offer the chance to walk among them (in tour groups that never exceed 20 people). Here, hundreds of penguins waddle adorably along the shore.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Most penguins don’t live in tropical climates, or anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, only the endangered Galápagos penguins appear north of the equator, and they live on the islands year-round. This is unusual for penguins, as they typically migrate with the seasons. The western islands in the Galápagos have much cooler water, so many penguins call the area home, namely Fernandina Island and Isabela Island. No tour of the Galápagos Islands would be complete without visiting the penguins.
Likely you will see the penguins from a boat, but if your tour offers swimming, you can paddle in the water alongside the little guys. The Galápagos National Park Service does not allow tourists in certain areas, so before booking a tour, it’s best to determine with the park rangers that you will be able to see the birds from a reasonable distance.
Phillip Island, Australia
The smallest species of penguin, the little penguin, lives mainly on Phillip Island, which is roughly a 90-minute drive from Melbourne, Australia. The only other place these birds can be found is in neighboring New Zealand. These penguins are about a foot tall and weigh less than three pounds.
Today, the most common way to see the birds is from an elevated viewing platform when they get back from the day’s fishing to feed their young. If you would like to see this grand parade of penguins up-close, there are limited tour options available, allowing people to walk among the penguins on a remote beach.
Sub-Antarctic New Zealand
While 13 species of penguin have been spotted across New Zealand, only three species breed on the mainland: the kororā (little penguin), the hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin), and the tawaki (Fiordland crested penguin). You can see the little penguin in the evening or at night when they are ashore in Oamaru, Akaroa Harbour, Marlborough Sounds, Dunedin, or Stewart Island.
At Otago Peninsula, not far from the city of Dunedin, you’ll be able to visit the rare hoiho penguins up-close in their natural habitat. Fiordland crested penguins are also rare, and they live on New Zealand’s South Island in the rainforests of Lake Moeraki, Stewart Island, Fiordland, and Haast. Because these wild penguins have declining populations, sustainable ecotourism is encouraged.