Published: September 2009

King Penguins

King Penguins

Every Bird a King

By the multitudes, breeding king penguins come ashore each year to stake a claim on Possession Island.

By Tom O'Neill
Photograph by Stefano Unterthiner

First comes the Noise, the turbulent din of king penguins calling, fighting, courting, like the ultimate schoolyard uproar. Then the smell hits, a choking reek of fish and ammonia from the birds' guano. But the assault on ear and nose is only a teaser for what awaits the eye. When photographer Stefano Unterthiner climbed a volcanic ridge on Possession Island—a wet, wind-blasted speck in the Crozet archipelago some 1,400 miles north of Antarctica—he found himself staring into a valley filled wall-to-wall with king penguins, tens of thousands of them, all standing as if gathered for a mass rally. The occasion was summer in the Southern Hemisphere—egg-laying season, the time when penguins, so agile and quick in the water, clumsily come ashore to molt, find a partner, and with luck produce a new crop of chicks. Befitting their name, king penguins cut an impressive figure in the seabird court. As tall as three feet and weighing an average of 30 pounds, they are the second largest penguin, after the emperor. The king is also among the most distinctive, with vivid orange detailing on its head, beak, neck, and upper breast.

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