Written By: Steve Rushin
The following is from the introduction to LIFE’s new special issue Penguins: Their Extraordinary World, available at newsstands and online:
You never forget your first penguin. Mine stood atop a white slab of ice, the tuxedoed groom on a wedding cake, looking back at our passing ship slicing through the Drake Passage from Argentina to Antarctica. Thousands more awaited on that frozen continent, where gregarious birds gazed into the GoPros of tourists in rubber Zodiacs making landfall on the rocky shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. Solicitous in their feathered dinner jackets, the Adelie penguins were outgoing and unflappable, nature’s maitre d’s.
On another continent, in another year, I stood in Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island, off the windswept coast of Cape Town, in South Africa. The braying of African penguins had been a happy diversion to the political prisoners in their eight-by-seven concrete cells there. Ordered to gather seaweed along the island’s shoreline, Mandela was delighted by the penguins, who offered modest “pleasure and distraction” during his 18 years there. “We laughed at the colony of penguins, which resembled a brigade of clumsy, flat-footed soldiers,” he wrote. Like the Birdman of Alcatraz, dreaming of flying beyond the bars of his island prison, the men of Robben Island were given lift by the flightless penguin.
Long before I saw a penguin in its natural state, I had been delighted by penguins in unnatural states, encountering them from earliest childhood in superhero mythology. Burgess Meredith played the Penguin, Batman’s nemesis, on the kitsch TV series of the 1960s. Penguins were a staple of vintage TV cartoons of that era (Tennessee Tuxedo or Chilly Willy) and remain so in modern animated films (the Penguins of Madagascar and Happy Feet franchises). Penguins star in live-action films (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, based on a 1938 book of the same name) and movies that combine animation and live action (the cartoon penguin waiters in Mary Poppins charmed their costar Dick Van Dyke). Penguins front everything from prestige documentaries to Munsingwear golf shirts to the professional hockey team in Pittsburgh. Why?
“All the world loves a penguin,” noted English explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who lived to tell the tale of Robert Falcon Scott’s deadly Antarctic expedition of 1910, in his classic account, The Worst Journey in the World. “I think it is because in many respects they are like ourselves, and in some respects what we should like to be.” Penguins are physically courageous, maternally inclined, intensely curious, and proud. “They are extraordinarily like children,” Cherry-Garrard wrote of Adelie penguins, “these little people of the Antarctic world, either like children or like old men, full of their own importance.”
Perhaps that’s why children are so enthralled by penguins, their spiritual counterparts. The international pop stars Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran got complementary penguin tattoos after a night of drinking, both men honoring Pingu Penguin, the stop-motion, anthropomorphic emperor penguin of the children’s show Pingu, which first aired in Switzerland before emigrating to the larger world.
Musician John McVie found the penguins at the London Zoo so enchanting as a young man that his band, Fleetwood Mac, in 1973 named their eighth studio album Penguin and adopted the bird as their mascot. McVie—with his then wife and bandmate, Christine—donated a penguin to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo before a concert in that city in 1977. “Ever since I’ve known him, John has enjoyed penguins,” Christine McVie, who passed away in 2022, said. “He was always taking pictures of them at the zoo.” Fans sent him stuffed penguins, penguins appeared on the band’s liner notes and album art. John McVie had a penguin tattooed to his right forearm. “It got a little out of hand,” Christine said, but Penguinmania tends to do that.
“Penguins are habit forming,” wrote Roger Tory Peterson. The artist and author who produced the first field guide to birds, in 1935, and became the world’s most famous birdwatcher, nevertheless retained a special affinity for these birds that cannot fly. “I am an addict,” confessed Peterson.
And yet “flightless bird” is not quite the right epithet for penguins. “Penguins do fly, in a sense,” Peterson noted, “but in a medium heavier than air.” They are strong, beautiful swimmers, porpoising through frigid waters, shiny as seals, diving for fish and squid. Researchers at the University of California report that emperor penguins can stay underwater, breath held, for 27 minutes. Diving as deep as 1,600 feet, they slow their heart rates to 10 beats per minute.
In his physical prime, Olympic champion Michael Phelps could swim as fast as six miles per hour. Gentoo penguins can swim 22 miles per hour. In short, penguins—often depicted as wobbly bowling pins—are extraordinary athletes. But they are so much more than that.
McVie, Sheeran, and Styles notwithstanding, one of the most famous depictions of penguins is inked on spines, not arms—specifically on the orange spines of paperbacks published by Penguin, purveyor of soft-cover classics, whose British founder, Allen Lane, wanted a mascot in 1935 for his new venture.
Lane sent 21-year-old Edward Young to the London Zoo for inspiration, and the young designer returned with a sketch of a bird that fit the bill. A long, thin, pointed bill, as it turned out. For books that are upmarket but inexpensive, Lane wanted a mascot that was both “dignified and flippant.” The penguin is both of those.
Dignified? Many of the 18 species of penguin appear to wear tuxedoes. (The much-circulated notion that penguin in Mandarin Chinese translates as “business goose” is the kind of urban legend we wish were true but isn’t.) The penguin’s tuxedo—called countershading—serves as camouflage from predators. Viewed from above, a penguin’s black back blends in with the ocean water, while viewed from below, its white belly resembles the sunlit surface of the sea.
Flippant? A rockhopper penguin has what is often described as a punk-rock hairdo—a multicolored mohawk crest that would have looked at home at CBGBs circa 1977. Penguins are waddling contradictions—black-and-white punks in tuxedoes, flightless birds who soar in water. They contain multitudes. Penguins are at once noble (think of the emperor in winter, standing stoic while protecting the egg of his offspring) and adorable.
They are wobbling purveyors of happiness. Robin Williams, who grew to love penguins while voicing the rockhopper penguin Lovelace in the animated film Happy Feet, was struck by their communal nature. “The sheer connection that they show for each other is very powerful,” he said. “And they look so cute—until you get them in person, and then if they overheat their eyes get red and they peck you. You have to keep them in a certain temperature zone. But I think people love the fact that they’re so true and loyal and playful.”
In their family dynamics—stay-at-home fathers, working mothers, coparenting couples devoted to their children, same-sex couples—they are models of the modern family, and have been for centuries.
Picasso painted a penguin in two brush strokes in 1907 and Le Pingouin—like the penguin more broadly—still delights people. Is it any wonder why? The penguin is regal and comical, opera and slapstick, pathos and joy. The greatest film comedian of the silent era—and perhaps of any era—was accused of stealing his entire screen persona from this magnificent bird. Charlie Chaplin disavowed the connection, but in his walk, in his black-and-white plumage, in his continued dignity despite ridiculous circumstances, Chaplin was at the very least penguin-adjacent. And like the penguin, Chaplin made people happy.
When the English philosopher John Ruskin found himself in “states of disgust and fury” at the 19th-century world, he would “go to the British Museum and look at Penguins till I get cool,” as he wrote in a letter to Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton on November 4, 1860. “I find at present penguins are the only comfort in life. One feels everything in the world so sympathetically ridiculous, one can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.”
And yet plenty of people have looked upon them with indifference, malevolence, or desperation. The earliest known recorded sighting of a penguin was likely by Alvaro Velho, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope with the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1497. In his account of that trip, Velho described a bird, flightless and apparently unfeathered, “as big as a duck” but braying like a jackass. As Velho casually noted: “We slaughtered as many as we could.”
Penguins have been imperiled almost ever since. For centuries, their blubber was used by whalers as fuel. In the 20th century, Peruvian penguin guano was a lucrative, nutrient-rich fertilizer, and the mining of fossilized penguin poop imperiled the colonies that lived atop several centuries of their forebears’ dung.
In early expeditions to Antarctica—before the practice was made illegal—explorers fed penguins to their sled dogs, and in desperation to themselves. In the natural food chain, the leopard seal and killer whale prey on penguins in the water. On land, their eggs and chicks are vulnerable to skuas and giant petrels. But modern-day penguin populations are primarily imperiled by roundabout means of human predation: oil spills, marine pollution, commercial overfishing, and, above all else, the climate crisis.
There is no reliable census of the number of penguins in the world—the figure is in the tens of millions—but almost all of them live in the Southern Hemisphere, perhaps 20 million breeding pairs in the Antarctic region alone. As many as half of all penguin species are endangered.
March of the Penguins won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, enchanting a global audience with the extraordinary lives of emperor penguins trekking to their breeding grounds from the sea and back again, living a flipper-to-mouth existence on Antarctica, in the harshest conditions on earth.
“Despite their charm and worldwide popularity,” notes the aviation conservation charity BirdLife International, “they are marching toward extinction.” But that march is not inexorable, and humans can still prevent the slow fade to black-and-white of a flightless bird, found on and around four continents, in polar and equatorial climates, in 18 different species, each of which is special in its own way.
Here are a selection of images from LIFE’s new special issue Penguins: Their Extraordinary World: