Guinness World Records needs no excuse to celebrate penguins, but World Penguin Day on 25 April presents an opportunity too good to miss! 

But how did this occasion come about in the first place? For several years, observers at the US McMurdo Station research base on Antarctica's Ross Island had become aware of an unusual phenomenon. On or around 25 April every year, Adélie penguins abruptly began a mass migration. 

This time of year sees the start of the Antarctic winter. Temperatures begin to plummet and the days become shrouded in near-perpetual darkness. Seawater begins to ice over and penguins have to travel greater distances to forage for food. 

Accordingly, the Adélies migrate north to warmer waters, where they have access to richer supplies of krill, the shrimp-like crustaceans that represent some 98% of their diet. In late October or November, at the start of the Antarctic spring, they return to the mainland to breed. 

Researchers at the base decided to create a holiday to coincide with this northerly migration. Today, World Penguin Day has become a globally recognized celebration that seeks to promote awareness of all penguin species and the challenges they face for survival – including retreating polar ice and depleting stocks of krill. 


In honour of this occasion, Dyan deNapoli – aka "The Penguin Lady" – tells us about her work and the part she played in a record-breaking rescue operation some 20 years ago to save thousands of the birds. On the weekend of 1–2 July 2000, some 15,000–20,000 penguins were flown to safety after a massive oil spill from the bulk carrier Treasure north of Cape Town, South Africa. It was the largest penguin airlift in history. She also explains how declining penguin populations are an environmental wake-up call for all of us.

An oil-covered South African penguin on Robben Island after the Treasure oil spill in 2000

What is it about penguins that first drew you to work with them? 

It was a bit accidental, actually. I had returned to college at the age of 32 to become a veterinary nurse so I could work with dolphins (which I briefly did in Hawaii). During my senior-year rotations, I opted for a four-month full-time internship in the penguin department at the New England Aquarium in Boston. And from the moment I climbed into the penguin exhibit and met the birds, I was hooked. 

What really surprised me was how unique each bird was in personality and temperament. Because they are colonial birds that often live in groups of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, I hadn’t expected each penguin to be such an individual. So, I was immediately intrigued, and knew that I wanted to stick around to learn more about them. 

I volunteered for another year after graduating, and was hired when a position finally opened up in 1997. 

Despite your vast experience working with penguins, do they still manage to surprise you? 

During the nine years that I worked with them, they never ceased to amaze and amuse me with their interesting behaviour and their unique (and often funny) personalities. 

What was your initial reaction when you first heard about the South African oil spill in 2000? 

When I first heard about the Treasure oil spill near Cape Town, I was horrified. This oil spill was located between two of the three main breeding islands for the African penguin (Robben and Dassen islands), home to nearly half of the entire world population of this species, and it was very clear that the size and scope of this spill could have a tremendously negative impact. At the time, African penguins were listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN (they are now Endangered) and without human intervention the future survival of the entire species was at great risk. 

I also felt compelled to go to South Africa to help care for the oiled birds. Fortunately, the powers that be at the aquarium agreed to send two of us to Cape Town right away to help with the rescue effort. 

How bad was the situation when you arrived in South Africa? 

My team – which consisted of eight penguin caretakers from zoos and aquariums around the USA – arrived exactly one week after the oil spill, and systems were still being put into place at that point. A massive temporary rescue centre, the Salt River Penguin Rescue Centre, had just been constructed to house the still-arriving stream of oiled birds. 

The local seabird rescue centre, SANCCOB [Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds], had exceeded its full capacity within two days, leading to the establishment of the temporary Salt River facility. Within a few days of our arrival, nearly 20,000 oiled penguins (mostly from Robben Island) had been brought to Salt River and SANCCOB, and both buildings were bursting at the seams. 

My whole team was initially stationed at Salt River. Before arriving in Cape Town, we had no idea what our roles would be. The day after arriving at the rescue centre, every person on our team was put into a supervisory role, which was overwhelming as things were pretty chaotic at that point. Then, the day after we arrived, the oil spill hit the shores of Dassen Island, necessitating the evacuation of another 20,000 clean penguins to prevent them from getting oiled. These birds were transported some 800 km [500 miles] up the coast to Port Elizabeth and released into the clean waters there. 

Volunteers herding oiled penguins on a beach on Robben Island

As for the oiled birds, at that early stage we really didn’t know if saving so many penguins was even possible, as there had never been so many oiled birds rescued at once before. In the previous large-scale rescue of oiled penguins (six years earlier during the Apollo Sea oil spill, also off Cape Town), half as many penguins were rescued, and half of them had perished. So the situation was truly critical, and the outcome was definitely uncertain. 

Tell us about some of the volunteers you were working with. What kind of backgrounds did they come from? 

They were truly extraordinary! In total, more than 12,500 completely inexperienced volunteers showed up to help out at the rescue centres. They came from all walks of life, and from all around the globe. Everyone wanted to help – there were blue-collar workers, white-collar professionals, homemakers, students, even the homeless. 

Most were from Cape Town, and several hundred came down from Johannesburg, but I also met quite a few people who were in South Africa on vacation from other countries. When they learned about the oil spill, they abandoned their vacation plans and came to help us take care of the penguins. 

It was one of the most remarkable and heartwarming displays of humanity and goodwill that I have ever witnessed. I often heard people say that the volunteer response had restored their faith in humanity. Whenever my team members and I were interviewed by the press and they asked us about the volunteers, we would get a sentence or two out before we would break down and start to weep with gratitude for all they were doing to help us save the birds.

So just how do you go about cleaning up an oil-covered penguin? 

Well, the most important thing is to call a professional wildlife rescuer and let them handle the task. 

When rescuing oiled birds, it's very important to let the animal adjust for 24–48 hours before attempting to wash it – because the washing process is very stressful. This stabilization period allows the bird time to de-stress from being captured and transported and to acclimatize to its new surroundings.

Penguins in the process of being cleaned at one of the rescue centres, with the encouragement of some tasty fish! 

Once ready to be washed, the penguin is first sprayed with a degreaser, which stays on for about half an hour and starts to break down the heavier oil. The penguin is then dipped into a tub of hot, soapy water, which is agitated through their feathers until all the oil is removed and the water runs clear. It may take several baths to achieve this. 

High-pressure hoses are used to remove all of the residual soap from their feathers, and they are then placed under heat lamps to dry. After that, they need some time to regain their waterproofing before they can be released. 

How did the re-release of the recuperated penguins work? 

Apart from the 20,000 clean penguins that were transported from Dassen Island to Port Elizabeth and then allowed to swim back to their breeding islands (which they did in two to three weeks' time), the rest of the penguins were released on beaches in and around Cape Town – most on Milnerton Beach. 

Cleaned-up penguins were re-released in groups of several hundred at a range of local beaches around Cape Town

Like all birds, penguins have a great homing instinct, so most of them found their way back to their original breeding islands. Robben Island is just 3.2 km [2 miles] out of Cape Town Harbor and Dassen Island is just about 32 km [20 miles] north of Robben. 

The penguins were released in batches of a few hundred birds at a time. Part of the reason for this was just because of the logistics of handling so many birds in one day – and part of it was because they weren't all ready to be released at the same time. It was only possible to wash a few hundred birds each day, and they then had to go through the process of regaining their waterproofing and being fattened up to a healthy weight before being released, so everything happened in stages, or in a staggered fashion. 

Do you think enough is being done now to stop disasters like this from happening again? 

As of 1 January 2015, all oil tankers in US waters need to be double-hulled, which helps, but even double-hulled ships can sink or become grounded and cause a major oil spill. 

And human error is very often the reason for these oil spills. The Oliva spill in March 2011, which oiled tens of thousands of endangered rockhopper penguins at Nightingale Island near Tristan da Cunha [in the South Atlantic], is an example of shockingly poor judgement on the part of at least one crew member. It's an accident that was completely preventable and never should have happened. 

Another major issue is the illegal dumping of bilge water, which is contaminated with fuel oil. Ships are supposed to empty their bilges and clean their tanks at port, but because there is a fee associated with this, many do it illegally at night at sea instead. These small "mystery spills" are responsible for hundreds to thousands of penguins and other sea birds and animals becoming contaminated every year. Better monitoring and policing of these ships' activities are needed to curb this practice. 

Another problem is that certain penguin species live, migrate or forage along shipping-lane routes or near major shipping ports. The African penguins are an example of this. 

Historically, this was an issue for the Magellanic penguins in South America as well. For many years, tens of thousands of them were oiled annually, because the shipping lanes along the east coast of South America overlapped with the penguins’ 4,830-km-long [3,000-mi] annual migration route. By satellite-tagging Magellanic penguins, researcher Dr P Dee Boersma was able to provide evidence that eventually persuaded the governing bodies to move the shipping lanes. Since then, the number of oiled Magellanic penguins has dropped dramatically. 

Can the human race learn anything from penguins? 

Penguins are an indicator species – they are the proverbial canary in the coal mine. When we see the population of a species crashing (as is the case with most penguin species), it’s an indication that their environment is compromised and at risk as well. 

Penguin populations are suffering due to global warming (which is affecting them in many different ways), from overfishing of their food source, from habitat encroachment, from pollution (oil, plastic, chemical and trash) and from other factors as well. 

As the great oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle says: "The ocean is our life-support system." And we are doing great harm to that system. If we don't pay attention to what penguins are telling us about the ocean and the environment, we will ultimately be affected as well.

You can read more about Dyan's role in the huge operation that, all round, saved more than 40,000 birds (some suggest as many as 76,000) in her book, The Great Penguin Rescue

Record-breaking penguins


The vast majority of penguins make their home in the Southern Hemisphere, ranging from Antarctica (where there are around 12 million birds, according to a 2017 survey) to Australia and South Africa to South America. The sole exception is the Galápagos penguin, the most northerly penguin species, which lives on its namesake islands off the Ecuadorian coast of South America. The northernmost tip of Isabela Island just nudges into the Northern Hemisphere at 0.16°N. 

Penguins have been around for longer than you might think… The oldest-known penguin species was Waimanu manneringi, which lived in New Zealand some 62 million years ago, during the Palaeocene Epoch. Like its modern-day descendants, it was incapable of flight. 

Around 37 million years ago, during the Late Eocene Epoch, Antarctica’s Seymour Island was home to the heaviest penguin ever. The Antarctic giant penguin may have weighed as much as 115 kg (150 lb) – more than a Great Dane. At up to 2 m (6 ft 6 in) tall – enough to dwarf most adult humans – it was also the tallest penguin ever

A close relation of rockhoppers, macaroni penguins are the most abundant penguin 

Fast-forward to the present and today the most common penguin is the macaroni penguin, of which there are approximately 6.3 million. They are distributed mainly across subantarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. By contrast, the Galápagos penguin has an estimated population of less than 5,000. The rarest penguin, it is classified as Endangered by the IUCN.

Emperor penguins endure some of the harshest conditions on Earth in the frozen wastes of Antarctica

The largest penguin species today is the emperor, native to Antarctica. Male emperor penguins, which are slightly larger than females, may stand 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) tall – roughly the same as an eight-year-old child – and weigh up to 45 kg (99 lb). 

Emperors practise the longest egg incubation for a penguin, some 62–67 days; by contrast, most species of penguin incubate for only 35–40 days. 

Both emperor and king penguins lay only one egg per year, the fewest eggs for a penguin. Unlike any other penguin, however, male emperors have the sole responsibility of incubating the egg; as they can’t go to sea during this period, they fast for the duration. (Most penguin species are monogamous, so both parents must share chick-rearing duties.) They shelter their unhatched offspring in a feathered sac called a “brood pouch”. Meanwhile, the females head off to the ocean, usually for around two months, to replenish their own greatly diminished food reserves. 


More than three times shorter than the emperor, the little blue or fairy penguin is around 40 cm (1 ft 3 in) tall – about the same as a Jack Russell terrier – and weighs 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) at most. The smallest penguin, it’s found in southern Australia and New Zealand and lives for just six years. 

Penguins spend about 75% of their lives at sea. As a consequence, they have evolved to be able to drink seawater (special glands in their eye sockets remove surplus salt from their blood). 

They’re efficient swimmers too. When it comes to speedy avian aquatics, however, the gentoo penguin is off the charts. The fastest-swimming bird, it can produce maximum bursts of around 36 km/h (22 mph). Admittedly, that may be less than half as fast as a cheetah – the fastest animal on land over short distances – but the gentoo is competing against water resistance. And if the tables were turned, the cheetah would definitely struggle to get up to speed in the same Antarctic conditions! 

When it needs to take a breath, or to confuse a pursuing predator, the gentoo leaps out of the water in a spectacular display known as “porpoising” (see video below). 

Header and thumbnail image credits: Shutterstock, Logan Schmidt