The Arctic is a bird-lover’s paradise. Nature enthusiasts and keen birdwatchers alike will revel in the spectacle of 10,000 Brunnich’s guillemots wheeling through the air, far above the sheer walls of Alkefjellet, Svalbard. And there’s nothing quite like closing your eyes and listening to the raucous calls of countless of puffins pealing off the towering sea cliffs in Látrabjarg, Iceland. Among all these wonderful seabirds, more than one hardy traveller has pulled a member of our expedition team aside to quietly say: ‘this is lovely, but where are all the penguins?’
The experienced polar travellers among us might be thinking ‘wait – there are no penguins in the Arctic!’ And you’re right. But for many people, the polar regions and penguins go hand in hand. So why aren’t there penguins in the Arctic? Did they ever live there? We decided to find out, and discovered some fascinating stories about the relationship between penguins and the Arctic.
The penguin of the north?
Pinguinis impennis, more commonly known as the Great Auk, was the closest thing the Arctic ever had to a native penguin. A flightless bird with black and white plumage, for hundreds of thousands of years it enjoyed a wide distribution across the North Atlantic coast, from northern Canada to Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. It was agile and graceful underwater, could dive up to 1 km (0.62 miles) deep and, speeding to the surface, it burst through the water and leapt onto the rock shelves above much like the penguins we know today. Standing at about 75-85 cm (2.5-2.8 ft), the Great Auk’s size kept it safe from all but the largest predators, like polar bears and killer whales. But in the 19th century, growing pressures from humans, who had long hunted them for meat, oil and down, drove them to extinction.
Although the Great Auk was never a ‘real’ penguin, its legacy lives on in the naming of our feathered friends in the southern hemisphere. When sailors down south came across beaches covered in flightless birds with black and white plumage and an impressive way underwater, they called them penguins, after the pinguinis impennis.
Have there ever been ‘actual’ penguins in the Arctic?
Yes, there have. In 1936, a prominent Norwegian polar explorer named Lars Christensen saw the potential for a bi-polar penguin population, so he plucked nine king penguins from South Georgia’s beaches and sent them north aboard the SS Neptune. The penguins were carefully settled on the Lofoten islands, safe from foxes and other land predators, where they began a new life in the Arctic. Over the next decade, other species of penguin, including macaroni penguins, were also introduced.
Their existence in the Arctic was short-lived, and the last of these penguins was spotted in 1949. No one is sure where they went or whether they managed to reproduce, but for a short time, a beautiful island in the Arctic played host to several somewhat perplexed penguins.
A matter of evolution
Perhaps the most straightforward answer to the question ‘why aren’t there penguins in the Arctic?’ is this: they simply didn’t evolve there. One possible reason for this is that they breed, nest, incubate and raise their chicks at ground level or in burrows. They thrive in the southern hemisphere where there are few land-based predators. Perhaps the abundance of foxes, wolves and polar bears in the north – not to mention all those humans – would have made their evolution impossible.
Will I ever see polar bears and penguins together?
While some scientists and conservationists have considered settling polar bears in Antarctica, the cost and logistics, as well as the threat this could pose for Antarctic ecosystems have kept the idea on the shelf. For now, the only place you’ll see penguins and polar bears together is in a documentary or a children’s book! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit their far-flung homes and learn how each of them is uniquely adapted to their natural environment.
Words by Nina Gallo, Aurora Expeditions’ historian and certified PTGA polar guide.
Nina has been drawn to the polar regions since her first otherworldly experience of the midnight sun in 2002. Since then she has spent time in far northern Canada, the Himalayas, the Alps and deserts in America and Australia, always seeking out quiet, wild corners to explore. She feels immensely privileged to travel to these places and shares her passions for the natural world, human stories and adventure with all the wonderful people she meets.