Emperor penguins are not like other penguins. They’re not like other birds. They are not quite like most other living things on the planet. Most animals reproduce just as the weather is beginning to warm up in the springtime in order to give their offspring the best possible chance of survival. It’s a pretty standard template that’s evolved over millions of years and it mostly works. Emperor penguins, however, do it the other way round. They lay their eggs in the howling gales and extreme sub-zero temperatures of an Antarctic winter. The female immediately sets off on a fairly lengthy fishing expedition, while the male keeps the egg, and later the chick, warm until she returns to take over childcare duties.
The reason for this topsy-turvy approach is because once that first winter has passed, it gives the chicks longer to mature before the next one comes along. For the casual tourist, it’s hard to get to an emperor penguin colony when eggs are being laid or chicks are hatching s (typical temperatures could be -35oC, then add in the a windchill factor), but there are operators who will get you there in November and December – the Antarctic summer – when adults will still be feeding their now nearly adult-sized chicks. Some operators go to the 4,000-strong emperor penguin rookery just south of Snow Hill island, others to the colony at Gould Bay on the Weddell Sea. If you do make it, the chances are it will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.