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Penguin Hour

Posted on 10/02/2013 by George Stoyle

As I mentioned in a previous blog, some of my contract work often gives me the chance to fleetingly visit some interesting places. The last few weeks have been no exception – I even managed to rack up 8 passport stamps in 1 day! However, this blog isn’t a really about that but it’s worth giving a brief background about how, in February I came to spend just 1 hour photographing penguins on the Falkland Islands.

At the end of January I flew to Namibia, apparently a fascinating and beautiful country, a real photographer’s paradise with dramatic desert landscapes and stunning, unique wildlife. Typically this was to be yet another travel frustration to add to the list. Although I did get to spend a few days in the country most of this was on a ship in port with tantalising yet torturous views of the edge of a vast desert as well as a distant  sea lion colony and dense flocks of birds, including flamingos, only visible with binoculars. Until January 2013 I had never seen flamingos in the wild, then suddenly I had seen them twice in 2 different countries in the space of 2 weeks, both occasions too brief and distant to photograph (maybe this is justification for buying an 800mm lens).

The ship I had boarded was a survey vessel due in the Falklands as soon as possible so unfortunately (or fortunately) we didn’t hang about long enough for me to consider quitting my job and heading off into the desert to chase Oryx. We set off, heading slightly south across the Atlantic toward our destination.

I will leave the details of the 2-week journey for another blog, suffice to say we made it unscathed to the Falklands. We were meant to head straight for the survey area, about 120 miles south of the islands, but due to bad weather and some urgently required supplies we dropped anchor about 2 miles from Stanley. Although this wasn’t meant to be a vacation for anyone it was many of the crew’s first, and maybe last, chance to visit the islands so on our second day in the harbour a ferry service was organised. Typically there was a ridiculous amount of pointless faffing about and we didn’t actually step foot on the islands until fairly late in the afternoon. However, I’d packed my camera bag so was determined to make the most of it!

The hulking monstrosity of the survey ship, M/V Ramform Challenger

While most of the rest of the crew headed straight to the pub myself and a similarly enthusiastic colleague immediately flagged down a taxi and headed about 15 minutes along the coast to a place called Gypsy Cove (for a rather inflated fee of £35!). The sun was not far off setting so we didn’t have a great deal of time, but it was enough to spend an hour or so walking around the headland.  The cove includes some ruggedly beautiful, wind-swept white sand beaches and is home to around 300 pairs of Magellanic Penguins, a species only found in Argentina, Chile and Falklands.

A small huddle of Magellanic Penguins just about visible on one of the wind-swept beaches at Gypsy Cove

A lovely pituresque beach with a small scattering of penguins

Similar to Yellow-eyed Penguins, which I’ve had the pleasure to see in New Zealand, Magellanic Penguins nest in burrows dug into the grassy banks behind the beach. Some were huddled not far from the path while others were scattered on beaches, stood solo or in small groups singing, or rather honking into the wind. As this was nearing the end of the summer in the Southern Hemisphere there were a number of fledglings still with their fluffy downy feathers.

Reminiscent of 3 drunkards, a small group of penguins have a collective honking session

Apparently having a brief rest on its way from the beach to the nest

Young penguin showing the last of its downy fledgling feathers

Along the way we also stumbled across a couple of Kelp Geese foraging in the undergrowth and there were a few Pipits darting about and numerous other birds, too small and quick for a non-birder like me to identify. I could’ve stayed here all day photographing the wildlife and coastal scenery but it wasn’t far off being dark and we had to get back to the town.

A pair of Kelp Geese, previously foraging but a little startled by my presence

On the way back to Stanley we briefly pulled over so I could get a quick shot of the wreck of the Lady Elizabeth in Stanley harbour which has been here since the 1930s. By this time the sun had almost set and the sky was looking suitably dramatic – luckily I’d brought my grad filters! I would’ve preferred more than 2 minutes here but still managed to get a decent silhouette shot of the ship with some strikingly colourful rocks in the foreground.

The dramatic wreck of the Lady Elizabeth

Once back in town we joined the rest of the crew in The Victory pub where we were hoping to sample the local ale before heading back to the ship. Unfortunately they were all out so we settled on a couple of bottles of Old Peculiar, feeling somewhat peculiar and ever so slightly patriotic in our very British surroundings on this wonderfully bleak outpost on the edge of the earth.