|Too often we make the mistake of photographing penguins from our level, looking down. I always find better pictures when I get down to their level, as I did with these incubating king penguins in the Falklands.|
Penguins changed my life. In fact, it was a chance encounter with a group of emperors on the Antarctic ice more than 30 years ago that turned me into a wildlife photographer. It also inspired a multiyear and slightly obsessive quest to find and photograph all 17 of the world’s penguin species in the wild.
Among the world’s animals, penguins are absolutely unique. Although true birds, they can’t fly, and despite being considered slightly ridiculous, they’re spectacularly adapted for the world they inhabit. What’s more, penguins enjoy some of the most beautiful real estate on the planet.
Seeing penguins in the wild is a top goal for many wildlife photographers and animal lovers everywhere. For those of us in North America, however, it can seem a daunting enterprise. Inconveniently, and as every schoolchild knows (hopefully), penguins live only in the Southern Hemisphere, so grueling plane rides are almost unavoidable. In addition, a classic cruise to Antarctica may cost as much as your kid’s college education. Fortunately, there are other options to get your penguin fix (more on those later).
Not every picture needs to be a close-up. Here, I designed the picture first, using the rocks to create a composition I liked. Then I simply waited for these African penguins to waddle through on their morning commute.
Wherever you encounter penguins, you might think they would be the easiest animals in the world to photograph. To begin with, unlike most wildlife, they don’t tend to run away at the first sight of you. It’s true; their legendary fearlessness makes getting close-ups of penguins much easier than with other, more skittish creatures. (That’s the good news; you can leave the big glass at home.) But penguin photography isn’t without its own, real challenges.
First, there’s the chaos. You would expect that a colony of thousands of penguins would offer nearly endless picture possibilities. Yet, although the big group shots, including vast ranks of penguins, are impressive, capturing details and intimate behavior can be surprisingly tough. The fact is, there are almost always other birds, or great swaths of white guano, in the background of your picture, ruining even your best composition. I find it more productive to find a small number of birds on the edge of the action, where you can more easily find an angle that offers a clean, uninterrupted background.
The other chief barrier to good penguin photography is our size. Even a modestly sized human towers over a penguin, a fact that can cause the bird considerable anxiety. Even worse, pointing a camera down at a penguin’s head is a surefire way to get lousy pictures. Happily, both problems are easily solved; just get down to the penguins’ level.
Sitting down will improve your images considerably, but for best results, I prefer to lie flat on the ground. Yes, you’ll get filthy, and your reeking clothes may have to be burned afterward, but I guarantee you’ll get a more intimate, eye-level perspective. The birds, meanwhile, will be much more relaxed; most will quickly forget about you entirely and go back to their busy, waddling lives. In my experience, that’s precisely when the best pictures start to happen.
Finally, I have one last piece of advice for the aspiring penguin photographer. Yes, you’ll go a bit overboard when you see your first penguins (it’s okay, everyone does), but after you’ve filled that first memory card with portraits, take a deep breath and step back. Some of my favorite images have as much or more landscape in the frame as they do penguins. These kinds of “environmental portraits” (fancy talk for small bird/big landscape) often tell the penguin’s remarkable story as well or better than any close-up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
Emperor penguins may be the best models in nature, happy to stand still for hours, looking regal. Here, I balanced the warm midnight sunlight on the penguins with the cool shadows on the Antarctic mountains in a classic near-far composition.
Many of these islands offer lodging that ranges from basic, self-service cabins to quite comfortable hotels. One of the best, and most productive, is Sea Lion Lodge, where there are huge colonies of gentoo penguins almost right outside your door, as well as elephant seals, a host of waterfowl and always the chance of orca whales hunting in the bay.
If you don’t mind a little isolation, however, spend a few days on far-flung Saunders Island, especially a little-known spot called “the Neck.” On this narrow strip of land, miles from anyone or anything, you’ll be utterly surrounded by wildlife. Four species of penguins nest here, and it’s a short wander to a massive black-browed albatross colony, along a windswept ridge, or a rockhopper penguin bathing pool. In places like that, with all the time you need, you’re almost guaranteed to get world-class pictures.
No list of penguin places would be complete without mentioning Antarctica itself. It is, simply said, one of the most glorious places on Earth, a feast for the senses, with spectacular landscapes, round-the-clock light and immense colonies of penguins. I met my first penguin here, an emperor, back when most pictures were still taken on Kodachrome.
Today, however, it’s still as close to Mecca as it gets in the penguin world. And if you want to see the penguins of your imagination—lounging around on icebergs or being chased by leopard seals—this is the place. The only downside, however, is that it’s not a place you can really explore on your own; Antarctica requires a cruise ship and a considerable amount of money.
Here’s what I suggest: Justify the breathtaking expense by remembering that this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip (or at least until your next one) to one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. Oh, yeah, and there are a lot of penguins.
The Antarctic Peninsula is where most trips go, and it can be magical, especially in January, when penguins have chicks and the whales are starting to arrive. Come much earlier, and you can still be wading in snow; much later, and the world turns to mud and squalor.
If you can, make sure your trip includes the island of South Georgia, arguably the most staggering collision of mountain scenery and wildlife anywhere I’ve ever been. This is the home of king penguins, stately birds whose colonies may number in the hundreds of thousands. Bring plenty of memory cards and prepare to be stunned—and enchanted.
There are other penguin places, of course, but most are even harder to reach or closed altogether to non-scientists. For now, however, I hope this list will keep you busy and result in some fantastic pictures.
Kevin Schafer trained as a seabird biologist before becoming a full-time wildlife photographer in the 1990s. The new edition of his book, Penguin Planet, was released in October 2013. See more of his work at www.kevinschafer.com and at www.outdoorphotographer.com/blog on the OP Blog.