There are likely more Macaroni Penguins in the world (~12 million) than any other penguin, and Macaronis outnumber Gentoos on a scale of about 12 to 1. This overall difference is reflected in the relative sizes of their colonies. Most Macaroni colonies number in the thousands (tens and hundreds of thousands in some places), whereas Gentoos usually number in the hundreds. If, say, you’re slowly approaching South Georgia Island, even at first sight when all you can see are small black-and-white specs on the shore, you can usually tell which of the two species you’re seeing just based on numbers.
As the ship moves closer – but still at a significant distance – sound becomes a factor, and another key identification clue. Macaronis are probably the noisiest of all penguins. This and the remarkable size and density of their breeding colonies means that the surrounding air is filled with a striking cacophony of nasal honks. The quieter Gentoos have a lower-pitched, rolling honk that, in the smaller concentrations of their colonies, packs considerably less punch.
Finally, with the ships closer, but still distant, the interactions between members of the colony become evident. Aggressive behaviour is found to varying degrees in all penguin breeding colonies, but not to the extent seen in a group of Macaronis. Territorial squabbles are frequent and can often become quite severe – something much less likely in a group of Gentoos.
When the ship finally comes within range to see head patterning, you’ve long since identified which penguin species you’re approaching, and in the process, have gained a deeper insight into how these curious birds interact with one of the Earth’s harshest and most spectacular wilderness areas.
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