Central-place foraging seabirds alter the availability of their prey around colonies, forming a “halo” of reduced prey access that ultimately constrains population size. This has been indicated indirectly by an inverse correlation between colony size and reproductive success, numbers of conspecifics at other colonies within foraging range, foraging effort (i.e. trip duration), diet quality and colony growth rate. Although ultimately mediated by density dependence relative to food through intraspecific exploitative or interference competition, the proximate mechanism involved has yet to be elucidated. Herein, we show that Adélie penguin Pygoscelis adeliae colony size positively correlates to foraging trip duration and metabolic rate, that the metabolic rate while foraging may be approaching an energetic ceiling for birds at the largest colonies, and that total energy expended increases with trip duration although uncompensated by increased mass gain. We propose that a competition-induced reduction in prey availability results in higher energy expenditure for birds foraging in the halo around large colonies, and that to escape the halo a bird must increase its foraging distance. Ultimately, the total energetic cost of a trip determines the maximum successful trip distance, as on longer trips food acquired is used more for self maintenance than for chick provisioning. When the net cost of foraging trips becomes too high, with chicks receiving insufficient food, chick survival suffers and subsequent colony growth is limited. Though the existence of energetic studies of the same species at multiple colonies is rare, because foraging metabolic rate increases with colony size in at least two other seabird species, we suggest that an energetic constraint to colony size may generally apply to other seabirds.