One has a wispy yellow-orange crest protruding from the forehead and over each eye, while the other has a striking white patch behind each eye that conjoins atop its head. Macaroni and Gentoo Penguins don’t really look all that alike. Yet, on our Antarctic expeditions, learning to discern these two species is a valid challenge for an observer keenly striving to connect with the subtleties of life on the “White Continent.” This is because of the special nature of Polar exploration whereby our first sighting of almost any animal is so distant that the finer details of head feathers and eye markings are indiscernible, and therefore of limited value for distinguishing these two species. Furthermore, both species are of similar size and breed in many of the same places, further muddying the waters of long distance identification. Telling a group of Gentoos from a group of Macaronis, however, is still quite possible even at the distance of first sight, when all you can see are generic black-and-white dots in the distance – possible, that is, so long as one looks at more than the individual animals.


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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