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Penguins are the number one attraction for many visitors to Antarctica. If you go on a ship that is allowed to make shore landings, you are pretty much guaranteed to see them up close. But to get personal with penguins, you have to be smart.

First of all, keep in mind that Antarctica’s visitor regulations require that you remain at least five meters away from the penguins in order to not disturb them. You could easily become responsible for the death of a penguin chick or the destruction of an egg if your too-close presence should distract a penguin parent. Predators like skuas and giant petrels are only too ready to seize any opportunity to feed themselves and their own offspring.

If a penguin is trying to move away from you, you must stop what you are doing and back off (even if you are farther than five meters away). However, the rules do not preclude a curious penguin from approaching within five meters of you – as long as the bird makes the move, not you.

Penguin chicks, in particular, are quite curious. I’ve seen several lucky tourists who were astonished to find that chicks came right up to them — one chick even climbed onto a woman’s lap. If a penguin comes extremely close to you, however, remember: you are not allowed to touch or hold them.

Tips for getting close to the penguins:
1. Ignore the smell. A penguin rookery is filled with guano (feces) and the ammoniacal smell takes some getting used to. Think of a rookery as a polar barnyard.

2. Be quiet. Loud noises make penguins nervous.

3. Slow down. Fast or sudden movements signal predators to penguins, and they react accordingly.

4. Stay low or sit down. You can use your life jacket as a cushion on the rocky ground.

5. Be patient. It may take half an hour or more before the penguins get used to you.

6. Find a place of your own. There is no need to hike to the far edge of a rookery, but get away from the crowd of people who may or may not be as good as you are at being quiet, slow, low, patient, etc.

7. Put away your camera. Too often people are so focused on getting the “money shot” that they forget to look with their own eyes. It is a different way of observing when you are not looking through a viewfinder. Most of my most memorable experiences in Antarctica are imprinted in my mind, not on a memory chip or roll of film.

8. Finally, go down to the beach at your landing site and wade out in the shallow water a bit – without letting the water overtop your boots, of course! If you wait a few minutes, you may well be rewarded with a close view of penguins swimming close by in the clear waters.

As they rocket past, you will see for yourself how penguins really can fly.

© 2010 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Getting personal with penguins in Antarctica’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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