Two penguins, snuggled together in a 'flippery' embrace against a backdrop of twinkling city lights is just the kind of heartwarming image we could all use right now – not to mention it's the perfect pic to remind the world that these adorable waddlers need our protection.

Photographer Tobias Baumgaertner captured the tender moment at Melbourne's St Kilda pier in 2019. “These two Fairy penguins poised upon a rock overlooking the Melbourne skyline were standing there for hours, flipper in flipper, watching the sparkling lights of the skyline and ocean,” Baumgaertner wrote on Instagram. “A volunteer approached me and told me that the white one was an elderly lady who had lost her partner and apparently so did the younger male to the left. Since then they meet regularly comforting each other and standing together for hours watching the dancing lights of the nearby city.”

Baumgaertner's image went on to win the community choice title in the 2020 Ocean Photography Awards, with the touching tale of widowed lovebirds drawing thousands of votes from the public. “I posted this image of these two Fairy penguins a little more than half a year ago and since then it has circled the globe, it has been seen by millions, and I have received thousands of messages and comments of how these two little guys have touched and mended broken hearts, brought joy, hope and love into your lives,” Baumgaertner said on his Instagram.

While many have been moved by the evocative image, scientists have warned against the dangers of anthropomorphising wild animals, especially those that have taken up residence close to urban centres. Whilst it's entirely possible that the cuddling couple have paired up after losing their partners, it's unclear if this is actually the case. Earthcare St. Kilda, a non-profit organisation that works with the colony pointed out that it's possible the two birds are actually related – identifying the penguin on the right as a pre-molt adult while the bird on the left is a juvenile that may be the offspring of Penguin A.

Furthermore, penguin relationships can be a little messy. "Though penguins are colonial birds that tend to form strong pair bonds, there are always ‘shenanigans’ going on in a colony," Vikki McCloskey, a biologist and curator of the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences explained to Snopes. "The reason the birds ultimately ‘couple up’ is because incubating an egg and feeding chicks is a two-bird job. Just like human partners, if everything is going well — holding territory, producing fertile eggs, raising offspring successfully — the pair will stay together. Sometimes they ‘break up’, sometimes they ‘cheat’, sometimes one dies — none of this means they won’t find a different partner.”

Baumgaertner acknowledges the complexities of penguin relations and points out that his intention was not to offer a scientific description of the birds, but rather to evoke an emotional response that he felt the world needed at the time. 

Whether we're looking at widowed penguins comforting each other, a mother and daughter sharing a moment, or a bird couple enjoying a cheeky rendezvous away from the rest of the colony, the image certainly sparked a reaction – which makes these two the perfect ambassadors for their kind. Many species of penguins are threatened by overfishing, pollution, climate change and habitat destruction. These threats gave rise to Penguin Awareness Day, which is recognised on January 20 each year in an effort to draw attention to the plight of the flightless birds. Follow #PenguinAwarenessDay on social media to get your fill of tuxedo bird trivia, pics and video.