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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Penguin Planet

The top 5 locations to photograph the world’s most unique birds

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Penguin colonies are often a chaotic visual mess. For that reason, I normally look for images along the edges of the chaos, isolating small scenes with rare clean backgrounds. Gentoo penguin feeding chicks, Falkland Islands.
Here, then, is my list of the five best locations for photographing penguins around the world (okay, technically, it's just the bottom half). Consider it my contribution to your bucket list, or the spark to ignite your own penguin obsession.

South Africa
The African penguin is desperately endangered, its population having dropped 90% in the past 20 years (largely due to oil spills and changing ocean currents). However, you'd never know it after a visit to the busy colony at Boulders Beach, an hour south of Cape Town. Twenty years ago, there was only a handful of penguins nesting here, coming and going at a popular swimming beach in the middle of the suburbs.

Now there are hundreds of pairs in this area, attracting tens of thousands of tourists every year. Still, they're easy to see and photograph, primarily from a long, raised boardwalk (designed to give the penguins a little space). However, don't miss the original Boulders Beach, a little pocket of sand surrounded by a jumble of gigantic granite boulders. This is a landscape photographer's paradise, with fantastic light, especially in the early morning. Go before breakfast, as soon as it opens, and you'll have the place—and the penguins—to yourself.

This magical spot also has the added bonus of being the most civilized place on earth to photograph penguins. There's a small hotel right at Boulders that has both great food and a knockout South African wine list. The penguins, meanwhile, are just a few steps away. The only downside? The sound of braying penguins just outside your door might keep you up at night.

I had observed that these yellow-eyed penguins often stopped to have a scratch when they first came out of the water. For that reason, I positioned myself near the shore and waited. I was rewarded with these two birds, sharing a scratch, with a clean, watery background.
New Zealand
In all likelihood, this beautiful island nation is where penguins evolved in the first place, where the lack of predators (no foxes, no polar bears) and a productive ocean allowed a group of flightless seabirds to thrive. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there's a remarkable diversity of penguins here, even today; no less than seven penguin species breed around New Zealand, four of them found nowhere else in the world.

Not all of them are easy to see, however. Several are found only on remote islands offshore, several of them off-limits to visitors. But you can still see several different kinds of penguins around the coast of the South Island.

Your first destination should be the Banks Peninsula near Christchurch, where you have a very good chance of photographing the rare yellow-eyed penguin coming out of the water in the late afternoon. At several locations farther down the coast, you can watch little blue penguins popping out of the surf after dark and running toward their burrows. The photography is hard, but the sight is irresistible.


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