23 Apr 2024


In the heart of the Southern Ocean lies a haven for wildlife: Heard Island and McDonald Islands (known as HIMI). HIMI are a sub-Antarctic island group and Australian external territory located in the Southern Ocean, around 4,000km southwest of Australia and 1,000 km north of Antarctica. These remote, volcanic islands are the only sub-Antarctic region with an intact ecosystem, meaning no other species have been introduced by humans, which allows for biological and evolutionary processes to occur naturally.

HIMI and the waters surrounding these islands provide critical breeding and feeding grounds for whales, seabirds, seals, fish, and it is also an incredibly important home to some of the most iconic and ecologically significant penguin species on the planet. Read further to learn more about the incredible lives of HIMI penguins and how you can help protect them.

Macaroni Penguin in South Georgia
Macaroni Penguin in South Georgia © Natalie Long / WWF-Australia

The peculiar macaroni

First up, let's learn about the macaroni penguins. With their flamboyant yellow crests and striking red bills, these eccentric birds are a sight to behold. But beyond their flashy appearance lies a deeper story of resilience. Macaroni penguins are the most abundant penguin species in the HIMI region and represent approximately 21% of the global population – they use their streamlined bodies and powerful flippers to navigate the icy waters around these islands in search of food, feasting on a diverse diet of krill and small fish.

Rockhopper penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome / crestatus), Antarctica.
© Wim van Passel / WWF

The feisty eastern rockhopper

Next on our list are the eastern rockhopper penguins – these species are one of the smallest crested penguins with distinctive yellow feathers and fiery red eyes. With a smaller HIMI population of about 10,000 pairs, these feisty birds use their strong legs and sharp claws to navigate the rocky cliffs of their island home. The eastern rockhopper are a vulnerable species due to rapid population declines across their habitat range, linked to climate change and less food availability. With a limited habitat range, HIMI provides critical habitat and foraging grounds for the eastern rockhoppers to thrive.

Portrait of a Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), Antarctic Peninsula
Portrait of a Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), Antarctic Peninsula © Chris Johnson / WWF-Aus

The reliable gentoo

Gentoo penguins are the ultimate all-rounders of the Southern Ocean. With their sleek, streamlined bodies and vibrant orange bills, gentoo penguins are known to be skilled hunters that rely on an abundance of krill to survive. There has been little monitoring of gentoo penguins at HIMI over the past few decades; however, research at another Australian sub-Antarctic island (Macquarie Island) has found a 50% decrease in breeding pairs over the last three generations, which mirrors other trends for gentoo penguin populations across the sub-Antarctic range. Concerning, indeed.

King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus), Antarctica.
© Wim van Passel / WWF

The majestic king

Last but not least – the king penguin! With their elegant plumage and regal demeanour, these charismatic birds are the true kings of the Southern Ocean. King penguins suffered major depredations early last century when they were targeted for oil, including the HIMI population. Despite facing threats from climate change and hunting, king penguins at HIMI have been able to re-establish their population, although this is still below pre-depredation numbers. These magnificent birds are a true testament to the power of nature's resilience, but they require strong protection measures to ensure their ongoing survival.

A globally significant opportunity: protecting HIMI

So why is Heard Island and McDonald Islands such an important habitat for these penguins? The answer lies in the pristine wilderness that surrounds these remote islands. With its surrounding productive waters and rocky shores, this untouched paradise provides the perfect sanctuary for penguins to thrive and is a vital link in the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

But HIMI is under threat; as the climate heats up, ocean warming and acidification are putting pressure on HIMI’s marine wildlife - penguins, whales, seals, seabirds and fish are expected to be impacted by changes in oceanic conditions. Strengthening protection through expansion of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve would provide refuge for wildlife to develop resiliency to a changing climate, away from additional pressures like fishing and other human activities.

The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve is currently being reviewed by the Australian government. Current protection levels are inadequate to protect areas of significant conservation value in this region, such as foraging grounds for species like the HIMI penguins. If we want to protect this pristine wilderness and ensure the survival of its iconic penguin species, we must take action now.

How can you help?

  • Sign our petition calling on the Federal Environment Minister to increase protection of critical marine habitats around Heard Island and McDonald Island.
  • Adopt a penguin to help protect them and other vulnerable animals from extinction.


1 Hindell, M.A. Foraging zones of Macaroni Penguins breeding at Heard Island. Australian Antarctic Data Centre. Retrieved 19 April 2024.

2 “Southern Rockhopper Penguin (Eudyptes chrysocome) - BirdLife species factsheet". BirdLife International. 2020. Retrieved 19 April 2024.

3 Pascoe, P. et al. Trends in gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) breeding population size at Macquarie Island. Polar Biology. 43: 887-886. 2020.