Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Penguin post! (You have been warned. Cuteness will happen.)

On this dark and tragic day for the world (if it’s not bad for you, I can only believe that you haven’t seen the news yet) I thought I should try to cheer myself up by talking about penguins which are always wonderful. I believe that I left you last with over-excited squeals of joy on spotting a solo Magellanic penguin. Imagine, therefore, my transports on being taken to see not one but three colonies of penguins on Sunday! I was so high pitched that only dogs could hear me. One of the stewards is a Falklander and he very kindly arranged a tour for us out to Volunteer Point. This is a projection out into the Atlantic Ocean from one of the most North-easterly points of the Falkland Islands and is well known for its bird life...and sheep! That’s possibly one of the more engagingly surreal parts of the whole thing; squatting down and frantically taking photos of every single King Penguin, only for a ewe and its lamb to trot past.

Sheep and Penguins!

To see all of this, we first had to get there. At 8.30 in the morning we were picked up by our redoubtable guide and his wife in land rovers and driven for an hour along dusty gravel roads. As I’ve mentioned previously, the roads are not well travelled so the tarmac ends shortly after leaving Stanley! The first clue that another vehicle was approaching was the cloud of dust, followed by little pinging noises as stones decimated the paintwork of the land rover. It was fun though; the interior of the Falklands looks rather like Dartmoor; mostly shrubs and grass, no trees really because of the high winds. Every so often peaks of granite thrust their way roughly out of the soil and topple onto their sides. We drove past two downed Argentine helicopters which felt rather sad; all that’s left of them is rusting propeller blades. Our vehicles went up past Estancia, Green Patch and Port Louis until we reached Johnson’s Harbour where the road just...sort of...runs out. We carried on, off roading in our land rovers, for a further hour and a half until we reached Volunteer Point. It’s possible to rent land rovers on the Falklands and do this drive solo but it’s incredibly fortunate that we didn’t! There’s no track at all and our guides were clearly very skilled at off roading. We were picking our way through bog, with deep pools lying serenely to either side of the route. We would have been stuck in no time at all, a very long way from the road and any help. As it was, the girl car was extremely noisy; we cheered our driver on enthusiastically with every ridge that was crested and every boggy patch narrowly avoided!

Volunteer Point itself was wonderful. It’s extremely windy (seems to be something of a Falklands theme) so I was very grateful for all my layers but there were thousands of penguins. And I would face a lot more than a bit of a breeze for a chance to see penguins! They are without a doubt one of the world’s more entrancing creatures. Possibly the stiff breeze actually helps them to be more appealing as there isn’t a doubt that they’re also smelly little souls. The Point is home to magellanic, gentoo and king penguins which surprised me rather, as I thought it would be unusual to see so many species occupying the same evolutionary niche.
I love the way that this king is looking at me. "What the hell is she doing?"

It’s impossible not to anthropomorphise penguins. I spent the majority of the day trying to work out what they remind me of and I came to the conclusion that they look like a strange cross between a school boy in an overly long sleeved jumper and drunken elderly statesman. They have the same broad based lurching gait that very young children have, but combined with a certain sense of dignified purpose.
And we're lurching

The gentoo penguins are the little chaps that have the spray of white starting just behind their eyes and extending over the top of their heads, which makes them look a little bit like they’re all wearing tiaras.
Gentoos and their tiaras

They’re apparently the speediest penguins in the water, managing speeds of up to 36km/h which is clearly much faster than I can mange! They also seem to be much more purposeful and business like on land than the kings who amble around in a fairly relaxed fashion. The magellanics look perpetually dazed and confused when ashore, which is fairly adorable. We didn’t see any of the gentoo chicks or eggs which I think means that they haven’t started breeding yet. They like to make their nests from piles of circular stones and according to Wikipedia (which never gets anything wrong) they will squabble and bicker over stones with males often receiving favours from females by dint of offering her a particular lovely stone.

The king penguins were guarding their chicks when we were there. The chicks were in the process of moulting and losing their brown down. The year old kings seem to moult at the same time which gives them a very disreputable appearance and the surrounding area was so thickly covered in feathers that it looked like the inside of a snow globe.
Doesn't he look grumpy? Moulting chicks

Moulting adult king penguins

My favourite moment is when the kings extend their wings; I feel like they’re asking me for a hug. (Obviously I don’t do that; hugging penguins is BAD and WRONG.)

I’ve spent the rest of my morning imagining what the penguins would be saying in these photos. Please feel free to offer suggestions!
"I love you more" "No, I love you more..."

"You are not going out until you clean up that pig-sty you call a room. Are you listening to me?"

"What happens on tour...stays on tour."

"Guys...wait up...seriously...wait up!"


  1. Cuteness doesn't begin to cover it!

    1. I know- aren't they so great! I just want to cuddle them! (Wrong Helen, this is wrong!)

  2. I got your blog link from a freind after mentioning an article I saw on the BAS web site. Your penguin stories are great and I look forward to reading the rest of your blogs. The new series of Planet Earth II has a great section on how hardy penguins need to be to survive the southern ocean. Kind Regards. Peter

    1. Hi Peter! Glad that you've enjoyed the penguin post! I'm really looking forward to watching the Planet Earth series; I'm going to ask someone to bring it south with them on the next crew change. Apparently the iguana vs snake moment is horrible! Take care. Helen

  3. Oh man the Razor snakes! There are horror movies less scary than the Razor snakes! Apart from the scary bits, Planet Earth II is definitely something to look forward to though. And Monkey Planet too if you like monkeys and haven't seen it. Regards.

    1. Think I know what I want for Christmas...Planet Earth II. And a blanket to hide under when it gets terrifying!

  4. Ha, ha..and David Attenborough could possibly come around for lunch. But then he's probably busy at Christmas. I got it wrong and they're actually called Racer snakes. But as they're thugs, they probably have a razor procured somewhere or other. I did wonder why on earth any parent would force such a traumatic experience on their young but then I remembered what the Vikings were supposed to do with their infants. I suppose it really is a case of what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.