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Adventures in the Falkland Islands: Life in the Penguin Colony

Written by Thomas C

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Posted on January 27 2019

Adventures in the Falkland Islands

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

Part One: Life in the Penguin Colony

Penguins are my favorite bird and I am obsessed with them. Even though I am a wildlife photographer, my goal was not just to get nice photos. My main goal was to immerse myself in their environment and experience living next to my favorite animal. I decided to make my dream a reality and travel for nearly one and a half months, camping only a few feet away from penguins on a remote island located between South America and Antarctica, called the Falkland Islands. The process of going to the Falklands was an anxious one because there was not much detailed information about anyone camping for an extended period of time there, nor was there much topographical data readily available, and I had no idea what photo opportunities lay ahead. The goal of this article, part one of two, is to take you through stories of preparation for the trip and experiences during the trip. The second article will take you behind the scenes of specific photos. 

I decided to go camping for nearly one and a half months in the Falklands in order to see penguins. When most people think of penguins, they think of Antarctica, or South Georgia.  However, the Falklands are one of the best places to photograph five different species of penguins, as well as other birds on an unforgettable landscape. Unlike places like the Galapagos Islands, with their extreme regulations and having to be among other people, the Falklands allow you to be secluded; just you and thousands of waddling penguins.  

There is nothing more daunting than planning a trip with no good source of information readily available online. I could not find one article providing details of a person camping for a long duration of time there.  Even photographic questions went unanswered, like what is the optimal focal length, how many CF/SD/CFast cards should I pack…  Because of this, I decided to limit any potential disasters by packing everything.  

I was dropped off at five different locations to use as my base camps, and then traveled day-to-day from each base camp to various locations nearby to shoot, so weight was the least of my worries. People are always curious about what others carry in their bag, so here is a virtual look inside my camping equipment bag.  The craziest thing I did was bring all my food with me from the US. Because I did not know if you could fly on the air taxis (FIGAS) from island to island with fuel, I decided to take only non-cook food. For one and a half months straight, for every meal, all I ate were protein bars. This probably sounds crazy to most people, but they have no artificial ingredients, have high calories/protein per pound of weight, and they are filling and compact.  Luckily, I am one of those people that can eat the same thing every day. All my food fit into one big and one medium-sized compression/dry bag, as shown in the picture below.     

Now, to the good stuff: photo gear. I could not find any focal lengths online for my favorite penguin photos, and none of the photographers who I reached out to replied. I am strong and work out, so I took all my lenses. I carried all my lenses and cameras with me every day in my backpack, making two to three hikes a day—sometimes totaling fifteen miles.  The most notable item in my camera gear photo is the solar panels. All my camera batteries, laptop, and iPod were charged by the sun.

                 

I flew to the first island on a FIGAS plane, and was then driven to a remote area and dropped off. Once I arrived, I knew this was going to be one of my favorite places in the world. The landscape was so pretty; I pitched my tent halfway up a mountain, under a huge rock formation, looking down on crystal-clear, turquoise water lining the mile-long, white sand beach. Not only did I get a million-dollar view all to myself, but I had the bonus of being surrounded by thousands of penguins and even burrows less than five feet from the edge of my tent. 

When you read online about people visiting penguins, you always hear how friendly they are. However, with more research, you learn that Magellanic penguins are timid and do not like anything but other Magellanic penguins. At many locations, when they see you, they will keep an eye on you, the babies will retreat into the burrows, and sometimes the parents will go into the burrows as well. Because I was camping for such a long period of time, my “neighbors” got used to me and they did not even move a muscle as I walked next to them. They got so used to me that I could get inches away from the babies as they continued to preen.  

As I spent more time on the Falklands, being surrounded by penguins 24/7, my favorite penguin became the Gentoo. I just love how they waddle everywhere they go with two flippers always out, bouncing from one foot to the other. Did you know that they come back from the ocean weighing over three pounds more than when they went in from all the fish in their bellies, ready to be regurgitated to their chicks?


                 

I love Gentoos because of their chicks’ comical behavior. When the chicks get old enough to be alone, both parents go off to the sea to catch fish. When they are left alone, anything that looks like a food source is fair game.  I will never forget that as I was laying on the ground, five Gentoo chicks slowly waddled their way up to me, stopping every couple of feet to see if I was a predator. Eventually, they became comfortable enough to all inspect me by lightly pecking my boots, pants, jacket, and my finger! The best part of their behavior was when their parents arrived back from sea. The parent will call out to the colony and the matching chick will then start to waddle to the parent. When the chick gets close to the parent, the adult will start to run away from the chick, causing a full speed chase. Some parents have two babies and the chick that catches the parent first gets the first meal of delicious, regurgitated krill and fish.

My second favorite penguin is the Rockhopper.  Rockhopper penguins are the friendliest penguins in the Falklands. They will hop inches away from you, and if you stay still long enough, they will curiously peck your boot. Rockhoppers live in one of the harshest environments, with huge swells from the ocean crashing against the rocks as they porpoise out of the water, attempting to climb up the slippery rocks before the wave pulls them back out. After arriving back from the ocean, they have to scale rocky cliffs all the way back up to their nesting grounds.  Here is a photo of a Rockhopper penguin jumping a large gap in the rocks. 



You might be wondering, do the penguins miss? The answer is yes. I watched multiple penguins fall six feet, get stuck in the rocks, wiggle out, then fall another six to seven feet until they fall onto a big rock. Then, they get up and attempt to make the journey again. Here is a Rockhopper that fell, but quickly caught himself before falling as far as the others.



Once the Rockhoppers reach their nesting grounds, the chicks will hear their parents call and cutely beg for food. 

My third favorite penguin is the king penguin because it is just so aesthetically pleasing. At one area, I camped less than fifty steps away from their little rookery full of babies, and I will never forget hearing all the babies’ high-pitched chirps all day. Each baby has a unique sound and I was able to use a microphone on each chick to record the differences.  


                 

The reason I do not like Kings as much as the others is because they are the most human-like penguin. Have you ever wanted to see penguins smack each other with their flippers? They can even be seen balancing a chick on its two feet, nearly dropping to their belly, and extending their neck fully, just to peck another nesting King. Kings just love to have little squabbles. They are definitely not the happiest penguins on the island. I still laugh thinking about them smacking each other. You cannot beat their cuteness, especially when they feed their little fat chicks.  


                 

King penguins are extremely friendly and will sometimes curiously peck you if you lie still. I will never forget having my viewfinder on four King penguins having a dispute. All of a sudden, I heard a loud thumping sound on the beach, coming closer and closer. I thought it might be a sea lion, so I looked up and quickly realized it was a King penguin that had traveled hundreds of yards all the way from the ocean, skidding on its belly toward us. After reaching the two other Kings, it got up from its belly and waddled closer to them.   

I still love them, but my fourth favorite penguin is the Magellanic penguin. Unlike the other three, Magellanics raise their chicks in burrows. This is the least friendly penguin, and is the only one that did not curiously come over to peck me. They are still awesome penguins to spend time with though. Magellanics are extremely loving; every morning and evening, they greet their partner and show their love by preening one another. I was fortunate to have my tent be surrounded by their burrows, as close as five feet away, so I spent most of my time with these penguins.

During one stormy afternoon, the clouds parted and a rainbow appeared. I quickly left my tent and noticed two Magellanic penguins vocalizing. I made my way over and positioned the rainbow in the background. 


                 

The one thing I knew going into this trip was to expect unpredictable weather. I lucked out because 90% of my trip was nice, sunny days. However, the days that were bad were really, really bad.  My worst day was toward the end of my trip. Throughout my time there, I had gale force winds, but I am used to strong winds when I camp, so this was normal for me. However, I was notified that the military put out an extreme weather warning on the radio and was told that they rarely ever do this. There are certain days you will never forget, and mine was during that night when winds topped out at 120mph on the Falklands, matching the force of a Category Two hurricane. Mother Nature was rocking me to bed as I curled up inside my tent behind my tent poles, which were facing the wind to give them extra support. This night was the only night that I never heard a penguin vocalize. I set my alarm to wake up every hour in order to make sure my tent was okay and to catch any problems before they escalated. During the middle of the night, when I was checking on my tent, I decided to check on the penguin colonies. I will always remember the sight of a Gentoo chick losing its grip on the ground and being blown like it was flying. After I woke up in the morning, I respected the penguins so much more because I had a hard time taking on that storm in a tent, and I cannot even imagine staying out all night exposed to the elements. I will never forget seeing all the dead penguins, both chicks and adults, littered all over the ground, blown everywhere.  

Traveling to the Falklands was, by far, my favorite photographic trip. I plan on returning to the Falklands and guiding there. I will always camp on the islands because you get an experience that people miss when they stay in houses. Being surrounded by penguins and living with them is something words can never describe. I hope you read the next article, revealing my favorite photos of all the penguins and albatross.