Up close and Personal with Penguins

We’d arrived in the Falkland Islands overnight. Our shore party disembarked by tender at first light, eager for the day. The skies were cloudless and blue, one of the very few days of “blue bird” sky which the Falkland Islanders enjoy each year! Luck was with us.

Our Mission was simple- Penguins!  Having sought out this distant rocky island group in the South Atlantic, our band of travelers was eager to seemthese perennially cute creatures in the wild. All North Americans, none of us had ever ventured this far into the Southern Latitudes.  The allure of the cute, rotund, and waddling sea creatures is strong!  

Heading out from town, we passed the hulking remains of a steel sailing ship, the Mary Elizabeth, which had run into trouble on one of the many rocky reefs that surround the Falklands in 1890. The ship breached and her decades of rust presented us with a beautiful site as well as a fearsome reminder of the dangers of travelling to these far corners of the oceans!

Winding our way further along the gravel road traversing vast swathes of heather, a heath of low scrub pines, we soon came to several magnificent bays where white sand beaches opened before us. We walked across well -buffered dunes towards the bluff as sunshine blinded us, twinkling off the turquoise hues of the shallow waters.

The Falkland Islands are claimed by both Britain and Argentina. Argentina still smarts from the horrible military cost of the mis-guided war to defend their claim to this place. Known to All Argentineans as Las Malvinas, rumor has it that the countries current dictator decided to invade during a drinking spree as his palace in Buenos Aires.  The cost to a generation of Argentinian men, sent without proper supplies, clothes, or food is monstrous, with many men in their 50s still suffering from the memories of these horrendous experiences. It’s a sore spot.

But I digress into the realms of man, property rights, and a history of violence of nation upon nation. We were seeking wildlife and we spotted them! First with binoculars, we could see about 20 of these unique creatures lounging out on the beach, then walking along the path through what felt like a peat bog, we found many penguins at the mouths of their burrows, preening in the sunshine or peering into the dark entry where we imagined there might be hatchlings or chicks underway. The proud parents were dapper in their formal black with white trim, perfect camouflage amongst the dark heather in which they reside.

Arriving at the beach, we were delighted to be up close and personal with two species of Penguin, the statuesque King penguins who stand a good two feet tall and boast impressive redhead feathers, and the smaller Gentu penguins, who were the most numerous on this beach.

We watched them gracefully surfing onto the sandy shore, where they would morph into comical waddling creatures. Then, with a graceful dive, they would torpedo back into their water element! Such a contrast between the sleek and perfect aero dynamic form while underwater and the laughable, arms-akimbo, falling-forward waddle of a penguin on land!

We watched as a line of penguins ran up a nearby sand dune, apparently heading for their nests. Cute and so funny, we couldn’t help but discretely laugh! But atop the hill, what we found was a nursery, with many Gentu juveniles gathered together. Perhaps they were playing or larking about after their latest foray into the sea, comparing notes about the fish they had caught, or delighting in how to walk in a proper penguin line, which is single file! 

We laughed mightily at the way these young ‘uns slept, which was basically in “face-plant” position, doubtless absorbing as much sunlight as possible to warm those toes.

As our voyage of discovery aboard the ship continued, we later saw many, many hundreds of thousands of penguins around the ship. They swim in large schools, a fleet of well-coordinated acrobats jumping out of the water in unison to see what is up, catching air off waves in unison, as they swiftly maneuvered around our mighty vessel, fishing in packs. We encountered them in large numbers far offshore, sometimes resting together on icebergs, hopping in and out to land in graceful leaps on the slippery berg. Here is a link to enjoy incredible footage of a what we have come to call the “penguin hot tub”. Notice the leap with body in a swelt C-shape position as the birds spring from the water and land, feet first on the icy shore.   

Later on, we also saw massive shore-side colonies on remote islands around Antarctica. We were told by the naturalist aboard that one colony we passed – miles and miles of nesting birds extending up into the clouds atop their island- was home to 100,000 birds!

Such a special encounter at their burrows, thier beach, and thier nursury, observing closely these seabirds in their natural habitat.  

Such beauty in Nature! 

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