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Adventures in the Falkland Islands: Immersed in Penguin Life

Written by Thomas C

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Posted on January 27 2019

Adventures in the Falkland Islands: Immersed in Penguin Life

Thomas
Wildlife Photographer | Photo Guide | Podcast Host for the PhotoCast | Founder of Alotech

Being completely surrounded by penguins and camping among them for nearly one and a half months was an experience I will never forget. This is the second part of a two-article series covering some of my favorite photos taken and describing the experiences behind the photo.  The Falkland Islands are situated between South America and Antarctica and are the best place in the world to photograph penguins and other bird species as they use the island as their nesting grounds.  In this article, I am going to share some of my favorite photos of Gentoo Penguins, King Penguins, Magellanic Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins, Albatross, and Striated Caracara. 

My goal before I even touched the ground in the Falklands was to get one memorable interaction photo of each kind of penguin. Within days of pitching my tent in the Falklands, I was able to take this photo of a Gentoo hugging its chick tightly.


                 

After spending the morning’s golden hour photographing Magellanic Penguins, I made my way down the mountain to my favorite Gentoo nest that had a clean background and no other close nesting Gentoo to photobomb my photo. I found this nest after walking and observing all the nesting penguins on the small hills and narrowed it down to this one because it had a cleaner foreground compared to another. Unlike other photographers, I like to not move around from nest to nest, and focus on a baby because it allows me to not miss any split-second moments between the parent and chick. Before this photo was taken, a Skua took flight after feeding its two babies, looking for some food. The Skua decided to fly over this colony, descending close to the penguins and causing this parent to instantly grab its chick with its flipper and hug the chick tightly as the other Gentoo Penguins opened their beaks, attempting to peck the Skua. After the Skua realized it was not getting a meal, it flew away and the parent released the chick.

 

After observing the Gentoo Penguins porpoise in the ocean and surf onto shore, I made it my goal to get this photo. Nobody really knows the true reason why penguins porpoise as they swim to shore. This is one of the hardest photos to take because they are out of the water for less than a second, and you never know where they are going to come up. After laying on a beach and watching the behavior of previous Gentoos, I learned how the currents were pushing them, allowing me to estimate where they will porpoise next.  

Gentoos porpoise as they swim to land, but when they are ready to make landfall, they “surf” on top of a wave for a split second, all the way to shore.

King Penguins are some of the best-looking penguins on the island because of their facial characteristics. After spending all morning photographing Kings and their chicks, I walked 50 steps back to my tent to rest. Once I sat down, I noticed two King Penguins on the sandy beach, so I walked out and laid down to watch. Soon after, I was able to take my favorite interaction photo between two penguins. One rested its head on the neck of the other, in courtship behavior.  


                 

The hardest part about photographing King Penguins and chicks is isolating them with no other penguin in the photo. For me, I always prefer to photograph smaller colonies because it is easier to work the edges of the colony. Sometimes, the King Penguins cooperated, while other times, one stood behind the parent and chick for hours, preening itself. Luckily, I could just lay in my tent watching the penguins, and as soon as the photobombing King walked away, I got up and got my clean shots.



Another dream photo for me was a chick that was newly born and resting on the parent’s feet because it was something I saw on television, and was surreal to see in real life. The hardest part of getting a photo of a chick on the parent’s feet was taking a photo the split second the parent raises its belly covering the chick, allowing me to see it. I just laid there, waiting patiently for the perfect moment.  

 

 

 

 

Magellanic Penguins are the most affectionate penguins. Every morning and afternoon these penguins greet their mate and preen each other, showing affection. Also, each couple mates for life. My favorite photo of a Magellanic was taken steps away from my tent as two Magellanic Penguins greeted each other during sunrise by hugging for about a minute. The only reason I was able to photograph this natural behavior of this timid penguin was because I camped among their colony, allowing them to get used to me.

Getting isolated photos of Rockhoppers and chicks is difficult because all of the colonies are so large. The technique I use is to work the edges of the colony. I waited for the Rockhoppers to get older before focusing on the interaction photos because when the parents get back from the ocean, they call out for their chicks and feed them on the edges of the colony. 

When Rockhoppers swim back to land after hunting for Krill and fish to feed to their babies, they porpoise out of the water for a split second like dolphins. Some people think they do this to disorient predators. In order to get a photo of one jumping out of the water, I climbed down the cliff to the rocks that they jump onto. As I sat there, tracking penguins in the waves and guessing where they were going to jump next, I constantly had to turn my back to the water, hiding my camera as big waves splashed me.

After photographing the Rockhoppers porpoise back to land, I saw two penguins start to preen one another. I made the decision to go tight because they were surrounded by thirty other penguins, and got low to get a nice angle. As I photographed them preening one another, they decided to perfectly position their heads and I held down the shutter.

Unlike most people, I traveled to the Falkland Islands and only cared about penguins. However, soon after I spent some time with the Albatross, I fell in love. If you have never seen one, they are huge!. They have some of the funniest behavior to watch, and during their courtship behavior, it sometimes looks like they are laughing. I did not only love watching the Albatross, but their sounds are something I will never forget, from the cool courtship sounds to the cute, high-pitched happiness sounds the babies make when their parents preen them. Photographing Albatross is difficult because they nest on the edges of cliffs in huge colonies, making it hard to get a clean, low angle photo that is not a tight close-up.  

My goal was to take a courtship behavior photo from a low angle with a cool background. I saw two Albatross walking close to one another, so I got into position and waited. When they started displaying, a second male tried to steal this guy’s chick and I quickly got low enough to hide another bird in the background.

Most people do not realize how pretty and scenic Albatross nesting locations are. They mate for life and use these huge mud nests with million-dollar views. The hardest part is locating a nest on the edge of the cliff with a clean view and no other nests, as well as finding one on the edge of the colony with no other nest in front of it, so I can get close without bothering any chicks.  After walking for over an hour and a half on a steep mountain, trekking through thick vegetation and going from colony to colony, I finally found a nest that I could get close to without bothering any chicks. To get the photo, I scaled down the steep mountain, and when I got closer to the chick, I slowly inched my way on my stomach to get a wide-angle close-up.  

The only bird on the Falkland Islands that I have a love-hate relationship with is the Striated Caracara. They are one of the funniest raptors on the planet, and one of the most curious birds—you always have to keep an eye on them. Every day, I had one perch on my tent and just sit there watching me. Then, it made its rounds to inspect my solar panel after that. When I was photographing penguins, there was one that always landed on my bag, pecking it and leaving holes, and eventually landing on my boot, pecking it until the Caracara got bored. However, even with their cool curious side, they have a dark side. They are penguin killers. 

As I was walking a pebble beach in the morning, I noticed a baby Magellanic Penguin laying on the rocks. For some reason, it decided to leave the protection of its burrow and climb down a huge hill onto the rocky shore to explore. Because it was a baby, it tuckered out and did not have enough energy to climb the hill back to its burrow. As I looked up, I noticed a Striated Caracara sitting on top of the hill, fixated on the chick. On the other side of the hill, further down the rocks, there were Elephant Seals resting. The chick was trapped and I began to feel extremely sad as I contemplated taking photos of what was going to happen next. I decided to put on my 135mm f/2 lens and sat there, watching. All of a sudden, the Caracara flew down, grabbing the chick by the back, and proceeded to eat it. Even though I photographed the whole ordeal, I only like one photo because it shows pure emotion and does not have any blood. 

Even though a photo can convey emotions, there is so much more detail that the viewer does not see. If you are a wildlife photographer, the Falklands are one of the best places in the world to photograph birds, and is a place you will never forget.