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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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Amid the dramatic scale of Antarctica, penguins are often just small figures in an oversized landscape. I was drawn to this stunning blue iceberg from miles away, and it was only when we got closer that I noticed the penguins sprinkled on top.
The wildest place for penguins is on the rugged west coast of the South Island. This is the home of the Fiordland crested penguin, one of the least known and most endangered. To find them, take a cruise along Milford Sound—they're often spotted along the rocky shore—or pay a visit to almost any of the wilderness beaches north of Haast off the West Coast Highway. Fiordland crested penguins breed here in dense coastal forests, just about as non-Antarctic a place as you can possibly imagine.

Galápagos Islands
There's only one kind of penguin in the Galápagos, but the fact that it exists there at all is nothing short of astonishing. Their closest relatives live in Chile, over 2,000 miles to the south. Chances are, these birds were swept north by the cold Humboldt Current and simply stayed.

There are not many Galápagos penguins; recent estimates suggest no more than 2,000 to 4,000 pairs remain after a series of catastrophic die-offs in the last two decades. Yet, despite their rarity, they're still regularly seen by visitors on several of the larger islands; most trips there have at least one good chance of seeing one.

But the Holy Grail here is the very real chance of swimming alongside a wild penguin. Bring your underwater housing or your waterproof pocket camera, and keep your fingers crossed. You'll have to be fast; although penguins may seem silly on land, in the water they're like speeding torpedoes. (Full disclosure: I've seen Galápagos penguins underwater many times—always a thrill—but still haven't got a decent shot. A reason to go back!)

If you're in the Galápagos, though, you have plenty of other animals to photograph, spending your days with boobies, iguanas and friendly sea lions. But the penguins here will amaze you—just don't show me your fantastic underwater pictures....

Falkland Islands
This cluster of islands off the Atlantic coast of South America may be my favorite penguin place of all. Most people stop here for just a day or two, typically on a ship headed somewhere else, most likely farther south to Antarctica. That's too bad because these little islands are home to some of the best and most accessible penguins anywhere.

The unique thing about the Falklands is the freedom to photograph penguins anytime you like, without the structure of an organized tour. This can make all the difference, if only because the weather is famously changeable. In the Falklands, it can blow a gale all morning, with sheets of rain, and then be balmy and dry by evening, with some of the most stunning light you've ever seen.

Getting to the Falklands requires some planning; currently, there's only one flight a week to and from the Falklands out of Santiago, Chile. But once you get there, it's a photographer's paradise. Just don't stay too long in Stanley, the charming main town; the wildlife is primarily on the small, offshore islands.


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