The penguin quest: A search for all 18 species

We did not set out intentionally to see every penguin species in the wild. We actually resisted the idea, knowing the difficulties involved. But as we saw more species, we grew somewhat obsessed with penguins. Gradually, our obsession left us with only one option: Go for it.

At first, penguins were for us a series of adventures — traveling to remote places with bad weather, riding Zodiacs, seeing adorable birds. Slowly, we began to think of it as a quest, a journey in search of something we could not define but that looked like penguins. It felt like a pilgrimage, a journey of discovery. A journey of the heart.

Occasionally our encounters turned dangerous. With Fiordland Penguins in New Zealand, for example, heavy rain left us with a swollen, angry river to cross. As we waded through the hip-deep water, the current knocked us over, but somehow we made it across.

Surprisingly, one of our biggest challenges was explaining our travel to our friends and family. Many species of penguins live on just one small island, in the middle of the ocean, like Gough and the Northern Rockhopper Penguin. Friends and family had rarely heard of where we were going. We’d get blank stares.

Yellow-eyed Penguins
Yellow-eyed Penguins take a walk on Enderby Island, south of New Zealand. Photo by Charles Bergman

But the minute we said why we were going — to see every penguin — faces lit up. Friends waddled like a penguin, called like a penguin, slapped flippers like a penguin.

People may not know how many species there are — most are surprised to learn there are more than one — but one thing was clear. Everyone loves penguins.

Penguins are irresistible. It’s nearly impossible to find someone who does not love penguins. The reason is also clear: We love penguins because, more than any other bird, they remind us — of us!

Penguins are the most anthropomorphic bird in the world. Anthropomorphism may produce bad science, but it can help us understand our feelings for creatures.

With their shining chest, so bright it seems silver, penguins are living mirrors, reflecting us back to ourselves. They look like little people, with their upright stance, their flippers like arms, and their characteristic and charming waddle. Wherever they’re going, it must require formal wear, because penguins always arrived dressed in black tuxedos.

Like people, they are irredeemably social. It’s unusual to see a penguin all alone. King Penguins form enormous breeding colonies on South Georgia and Macquarie islands — as many as 200,000 loud, devoted, bickering birds. They definitely reflect our social vices. Penguins are largely monogamous but cheat. They love company and steal from their neighbors.

If they seem comical, even cartoonish, it’s because penguins are feathered parodies of ourselves. Their clownishness — a sudden pratfall, an unexpected face-plant, a projectile poop that hits a nesting neighbor — undermines their swagger and self-importance.

They are our “mini-mes,” childlike, diminutive versions of us. And like children, they evoke in us a parental love and affection.

It was this feeling they inspire, in their company, that changed Susan and me over time. They are living lessons in caring for the planet and its creatures, in all their beauty and their vulnerability.

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.

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