The cold weather is here to stay. It’s the time of year when most people are thinking about crackling fires and hot chocolate. Not you. You’re starting to have visions of penguins, polar bears, and reindeer dancing through your head. It’s (slightly) easier to check polar bears and reindeer off your list—if you’re willing to head north toward the short days and the northern lights. But now is actually the best time to head south to find those penguins.
For a guaranteed sighting, you can’t beat aptly named Penguin Island. The small, oval-shaped island is located 75 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula near larger King George Island. It was first sighted in 1820 by a British expedition, though no one owns the island today. Any country can use the island, as long as it isn’t for military purposes. It’s become a frequent stop for ships departing from Tierra del Fuego.
As you approach Penguin Island, the first thing you see is Deacon Peak. The stratovolcano, last active about 300 years ago, is the island’s highest point. It’s surrounded by cliffs, a small lake, and more craters. Until recently, it was difficult to land on the island during the summer (forget the rest of the year) due to snow and ice. Small zodiac boats now have easy access to the beaches—and the penguins—on the north shore earlier than ever before.
Penguin Island is considered an Important Bird Area due to migrating seabirds. More than 600 pairs of southern giant petrels, as well as Antarctic terns and kelp gulls, breed here. Weddell and southern elephant seals call the island home, too. You don’t even notice them. Your sights and thoughts are firmly on the Adélie and chinstrap penguins that dot the beach. Some are hurrying to the water. Others are waddling back up the sand with bellies full of krill. While a couple of them are scrambling over the rocks toward your group.
On the boat, you had been warned over and over again to stay a safe distance from all of the wildlife. But it’s hard to maintain boundaries when a black-and-white bird is brushing up against your boots. While everyone else takes photos, you stand perfectly still so you don’t scare your new friend. There’s no way you could ever get this close to a polar bear or a reindeer.