The penguin quest: A search for all 18 species

Two King Penguins
Two King Penguins survey the shore of Macquarie Island, about halfway between New Zealand and Australia. Photo by Charles Bergman

Fourteen days at sea. Our goal was almost in sight. And conditions were deteriorating by the minute. Winds whipped up whitecaps on the sea, and a dangerous 10-foot swell was coming broadside. It was early morning in April 2017, but there would be no sunrise — just low clouds and a building gale.

The captain pulled us into a more-or-less protected spot at Gough Island. It’s one of the most remote islands in the world, eight uninhabited and rarely visited miles of cliffs and loneliness. Halfway between Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro, it’s a difficult place to get to, and it’s prohibited to go ashore.

Subscribe today to BirdWatching magazine for tips, birding hotspots, and much more!

Six hermitted, hardy souls run a weather station in the distant outpost. They may be alone, but they have lots of company. Gough is one of the most important islands in the world for nesting seabirds. In the middle of the South Atlantic, it’s home to such rarities as Tristan Albatross, Sooty Albatross, and the magnificent Spectacled Petrel. And perhaps the world’s most-difficult-to-see penguin.

Rockhopper Penguin was recently split into two species. Southern Rockhoppers are found mainly in the Falkland Islands. Northern Rockhoppers breed exclusively in the Tristan da Cunha Archipelago, which includes Gough.

Like most of the 44 passengers on the ship, my wife and I really wanted to see this penguin. For more than a decade, Susan and I have been traveling throughout the Southern Hemisphere in a quest to see every species of penguin in the world. This was the chance for our last species, the Northern Rockhopper Penguin.

Number 18.

But we could barely distinguish the shoreline, much less the penguins.

The expedition leader, addressing us all, called conditions “extremely marginal.” But, he announced, he was putting the Zodiacs in the water. Everyone cheered. “Please,” he implored, “take care.”

After a gingerly step into a Zodiac bucking on the swells, we were bobbing toward the penguins. A pelting rain hit us horizontally as we rode the surge just off shore.

The penguins were lined up, watching us. They are perhaps the most stunning of all the crested penguins. They had a spectacular shock of golden feathers on their head, blowing wildly in the wind. Slapping their faces, the thick crest forced them to peek out like shaggy dogs. Someone in the Zodiac commented on their bad hair day.

Their crest was wild, outrageous even, and wonderful.

I might use the same language for our quest to see every penguin species.

Susan and I beamed at each other. Number 18 — check! Soaking wet, hypothermia a real possibility, people’s cameras breaking down in the heavy rain — and we were completely happy. Chasing penguins can be the most miserable way to have the best time of your life. And they’ll teach you about a deepening bond with nature and birds.

Charles Bergman

Charles Bergman

Charles Bergman is a professor of English at Pacific Lutheran University, an author, and an award-winning photographer. For BirdWatching, he has written articles about penguins, Vaux’s Swift, Red Crossbill, Spotted and Barred Owls, and Tufted Puffin, among other topics. His most recent book is A Penguin Told Me a Secret.

Charles Bergman on social media