King Penguins on an island in the South Atlantic

King Penguins on an island in the South Atlantic

King Penguins on an island in the South Atlantic: While the tuna around the Galápagos Islands have sea lions and sharks to contend with, on an island in the South Atlantic a large and charismatic seabird has an even more formidable gauntlet to run or, at least, waddle.

King Penguins on an island in the South Atlantic

King Penguins on an island in the South Atlantic

Backed by snow-capped mountains, the broad sweep of the beach and hinterland at St Andrews Bay on South Georgia is often a seething mass of penguins. About 150,000 pairs nest here, one of the largest breeding colonies of king penguins in the world.

Standing close to 1 metre tall, they are the second largest species of living penguins (the emperor is 10 centimetres taller), males a touch larger than the females.

Each pair has a single egg, which is laid between November and April, but, because chicks take 13 to 16 months to fledge, at any one time some pairs may be approaching the end of their breeding period with a 12-month-old chick, while other parents have only just started to incubate their egg.

Both parents are on duty, round the clock for the first three weeks, and then every two or three days as they head out to sea to hunt. Older chicks tend to gather in large crèches while their parents are at sea. Even though each bird is enveloped in a dark brown, downy coat, fiercely cold katabatic squalls can blow down from nearby glaciers, so the youngsters huddle together to help keep warm.

On land king penguins are slow movers but in the sea they are transformed into sleek, fast-swimming predators. During the day, they dive generally to about 100 metres and remain submerged for about 5 minutes, although the current record holder was down for 9.2 minutes and dived to 343 metres.

At night, they need go no more than 30 metres. This is because their prey, mainly lanternfish and squid, are part of the daily vertical migration of marine life that rises towards the surface at night and hides in the deep sea by day. They rely less on swarms of krill than most other Southern Ocean predators.

The birds return to the bay fully laden with food, ready to regurgitate this natural and nutritious bouillabaisse to their chick, but as they emerge from the water a wall of blubber confronts them. Thousands of southern elephant seals, about half the world’s population, have hauled out onto the beach, a living barrier between the penguin parents and the many thousands of chicks eagerly waiting on the other side.

The birds appear to almost tiptoe through the sprawling bodies, careful not to wake a snoozing beachmaster. These bulls are the real ‘kings’ around here, each dominant male surrounded by his harem of smaller females.

If one should stir, a penguin might easily be squashed under an animal that weighs up to 4 tonnes and has a length of nearly 7 metres, the vital statistics of the heaviest and longest southern elephant seal ever known, a South Georgia resident and, in his time, the largest pinniped on Earth.