The Private Lives of Penguins 

BY Neil Brodie , UIAGM High Mountain Guide

What is it about the enigmatic Emperor penguin that brings a smile to even the most hardened of adventurers?

Is it their comical waddle; the mysteries behind a stoic gaze; or simply a story of survival set in the planet’s most inhospitable landscape?

Who better to share the impact of witnessing the Emperor rookery up close, than one of our experienced Antarctic guides – Neil Brodie, UIAGM certified high mountain guide.

Having spent numerous seasons working and living on the continent, Neil has been privy to the private lives of penguins…

What was your first experience like when visiting the Emperor penguins at Atka Bay? 

The thing that struck me most was the isolation. The penguin colony is huge, numbering thousands of penguins, but it still looks tiny compared with the backdrop. There’s 4,000km of ice to the south and the same distance in ocean to the north.

But despite the isolation the colony is quite a hectic place; penguins chatter, skuas fly around looking for vulnerable chicks and there is this continual back and forth movement between the colony and the sea.


Hauntingly moving scenes at the Emperor penguin rookery.


How did seeing them in person make you feel? 

When you get there in November, you know the penguins have recently had to endure several unbelievably harsh winter months with temperatures down to -50°C, winds of over 200km/h and no food.

You can’t help but feel a huge amount of respect for the resilience of these birds. And then, when you realise that only 20% of the chicks even survive their first year you feel a great deal of compassion too. You’re witnessing one of the planet’s most epic struggles for survival.


What is the location at Atka Bay like? 

The scenery at Atka Bay is less dramatic than that at Wolf’s Fang runway but it has its own eerie beauty. It’s right on the coast and in the distance, you can make out huge icebergs which have detached from the glaciers but remain encased in sea ice for much of the summer.

Our Canadian pilots usually take us for a flight along the coastline which is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with lots of opportunities for seal and whale spotting.


View the full video on our White Desert YouTube channel below


Why do you think it is important people get a chance to see these animals in their natural habitat? 

At Atka Bay, you get a real feel for the vulnerability of life on the Antarctic continent. It can be quite balmy but it’s more often cold and windy and after a few hours everyone is happy to be climbing back inside the plane – and this is in the height of summer! Knowing the penguins must endure the Antarctic climate every day of their lives makes you realise just how tough they are.


What are some surprising things you can share about viewing the colony at Atka Bay? 

I’m always surprised at just how curious and unintimidated the penguins are in our presence, especially the chicks. We must always keep a certain distance between us and the birds, requiring us to actively retreat as the chicks advance on us from all fronts!

As there are so few visitors to this colony, the curious chicks often waddle close by, entirely unafraid of humans and ready to face the cameras!

Our guests have exclusive access to this impressive colony at Atka Bay, and our ability to reach the colony early in the season affords them the rare opportunity to watch as the chicks step off their parents’ feet for the very first time – a wildlife photographer’s dream!

Visiting Atka Bay along the Antarctic coastline,  is a true bucket list experience


How do you ensure the penguins are not disturbed? 

We have a strict set of IAATO guidelines to respect, which have been drawn up to protect the colony. We stop the vehicles about 200 metres from the colony and approach on foot.

Once we get there, we insist on guests keeping a minimum distance of five metres from individual penguins, more if they are showing signs of anxiety. We’re also very careful not to hinder their movements. The penguins always have right of way!


Has visiting the colony and viewing the Emperor penguins changed you in any way? 

Knowing the Emperor penguins struggle to survive year-round in the harshest conditions imaginable, puts most of life’s hardships firmly into perspective. I think that knowledge can make people more resilient human beings and encourage us to respect the fragility of nature. Returning home after a trip to Antarctica makes one aware of how important it is to preserve the balance of our local environments, more so than ever.


Do you have anything else you would like to share about the colony and your experience? 

The Atka Bay staff members play a truly remarkable role in making our visits possible. A pair of general hands is present throughout the season, maintaining the skiway and preparing the hiking trail to the colony.

They live for weeks in small tents, braving storms, clearing snow, repairing vehicles and just dealing with the remoteness of the location – all so our clients can get an opportunity to spend an afternoon with the Emperors. They’re not quite as cute or hardy as the penguins, but they come a close second!