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A Commercial Cruise Line Helped Discover a New Colony of Penguins in Antarctica

Antarctic News Cruises
by Suzie Dundas Mar 13, 2024

A never-before-seen colony of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica was recently discovered thanks to a commercial cruise line, according to a news release from March 2024.

The discovery was made by Oceanites, the leading penguin field-monitoring organization in Antarctica. The researchers were traveling on the Viking Octantis as part of an ongoing program on Viking Cruise’s “expedition” ships — smaller ships designed to venture deeper into more difficult-to-reach parts of the world. Each expedition cruise from the brand carries not just guests, but a small group of scientists and researchers who both conduct research while traveling, and provide on-land guidance and lectures to guests on board.

“The Antarctic peninsula is well-traveled and explored, and it is not often we find a new penguin colony,” said Dr. Grant Humphries, Director of Science at Oceanites, in the news release. Viking provided transportation and thermal imaging tools to the researchers, which were used to conduct the first chinstrap penguin survey on Antarctica’s Astrolabe Island since the 1980s. A full report will be released by Oceanites in the coming months with data on the survey findings, and more details on the newly-discovered colony.

viking octanis in antarctica

The discovery was made by researchers on Viking’s Octantis, a ship built specifically for Antarctica travel. Photo: Viking Expeditions

Viking Expeditions have been sailing to Antarctica for only three years, but the news of the finding is already its second meaningful scientific advancement. The ship worked with the Norwegian Polar Institute in 2023 to publish a paper on encounters between the ship’s submersible and “rare giant phantom jellyfish.

Cruising is generally considered one of the least-sustainable ways to travel, with a carbon footprint far greater than other forms of travel and a a network of complicated international regulations that allows ships to dump waste in the oceans and burn diesel to creating air pollution at ports. While some major brands have made moves to become more sustainable — Royal Caribbean’s behemoth of a ship dubbed the “Icon of the Seas” uses liquified natural gas, which it claims significant reduces carbon emissions — the industry on the whole has been slow to embrace sustainability.

While that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to go on a cruise, it does mean that travelers should consider all the factors that go into creating their dream cruise vacation, and consider ways they can create a more positive impact.

One easy way to do that is by selecting cruise lines that have scientific partners or research teams on board. That ensures at least some of your travel funds are going to a good cause, and may lead to more discoveries like the one made by Viking and Oceanites. That’s especially important for cruises to Antactica, one of the most sensitive environments on earth.

“Regarding citizen science, to contribute yourself to scientific data collection while you are there adds “boots-on-the-ground” in a destination that has so few of them,” says Todd Smith, speaking on tourist cruises to Antarctica. Smith is the President & Founder of AdventureSmith Explorations, a Condé Nast Top Travel Specialist, a board member on the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, and an advocate for sustainable travel. “Aiding in research extends your experience of Antarctica beyond your own personal memories and photos to connect you in a larger way to the greater understanding of this incredible wilderness.”

Further, it’s a good sign if your cruise to Antarctica partners with research groups as it may show that the brand prioritizes safety and conservation, at least enough to dedicate time and space to it on board. “Antarctica is so sensitive and so remote that it’s important to have scientific expertise aboard to navigate with minimal impact,” adds Smith. “From where the captain chooses to land to how far away you stay from the whales to how your boots are cleaned when you return to the ship… all of that is informed by the scientific contingent on board.” He recommends selecting Antarctica cruises that carry 200 people or less, like Le Commandant Charcot, and also recommends only selecting operators that are part of IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, whose mission is to advocate, promote and practice safe and environmentally responsible tourism.

Citizen-science cruises focused on penguins

viking guests and gentoo penguins in antactica

Viking guests watching gentoo penguins during onshore excursions in Antarctica. Photo: Viking Expeditions

In addition to the cruises to Antartica from Viking, many other cruise companies offer itineraries to Alaska that include scientific components and support research partners. A few highly rated tours include:

The Realm of Penguins and Icebergs: AdventureSmith Expeditions sells more than two dozen small-ship cruises to Antartica, so you won’t hurt for choice. But if you’re all about spotting penguins in Antarctica, check out the 12-day “The Realm of Penguins & Icebergs” cruise. The itinerary is focused on finding seabirds, as well as other wildlife of Antarctica.

Antarctica Direct: Fly the Drake Package: If you’re short on vacation time and want to spend as much of it as possible bird-watching, this Lindblad Expeditions trip that skips sailing the Drake package may be a good option. During the eight-day trip, you’ll likely spot gentoo, Adélie, and chinstrap penguins. In addition to naturalists, there’s also a National Geographic photography expert on board.

Emperor Penguin Expedition in Style: This 12-day cruise from Swoop Antartica heads right to the Weddell Sea, just to the north of the Antartcia mainland. The sea is home for many kinds of penguins, and activities for cruisers include visiting several rookeries, lectures on penguins from on-board experts, and several days to attempt to hike to the Snow Hill Penguin colony. It’s not far from whre you’ll land, but the wild weather and remote location makes it quite the adventure.

Types of penguins in Antarctica

chinstrap penguin in antarctica

Photo: Amelie Koch/Shutterstock

Emperor penguins reign supreme in Antarctica. There’s believed to be around 600,000 emperor penguins in Antartica, spread around roughly 60 breeding colonies. The birds are the largest penguin species on the continent, but not the only. Adélie penguins, which sometimes are described as a bit “fluffier” or more rounded than other species, are another common resident. Also in the region are the penguins the Viking researchers studied: chinstrap penguins. They’re identifiable by the black bands under their chins that look like a helmet strap. You may also see gentoo penguins, easily recognized by their bright orange beaks and feet.

Sadly, not all penguin species in Antarctica are thriving. Climate change poses a significant threat to members of genus Pinguinus, with warming temperatures disrupting breeding patterns and food availability. Under the US Endangered Species Act, emperor penguins are listed as threatened, and Adélie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins are considered near-threatened.

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