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Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) are launched out of the surf as they return to Steeple Jason Island.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 200 mm, 1/1250 sec at f/8, ISO 400
Click photo to see high resolution version.

In my last post, I briefly alluded to spending a very long day on Steeple Jason Island. The day started early with a 5:30 a.m. landing, and was supposed to end with the last zodiac ride back to the ship at 4:00 p.m. The day was a blustery one, but I spent many productive hours at the black-browed albatross colony. The wind gusts continued to increase as the afternoon wore on and I returned to the appointed landing spot to pack up my gear and await the zodiac. It was at that point that one of the onshore staff members informed the assembled expedition members that the landing spot would be relocated to a more sheltered location on the leeward side of the island.

With all my gear tucked into my dry-bag, I undertook the short hike to the new landing spot, only to learn that the zodiacs could not be deployed from the ship due to the high winds. However, we were asked to stay ready to go at a moment’s notice should the winds subside enough to allow the pick-up to transpire. We hunkered down near the shore, hiding behind rocks and small hillocks to avoid the worst of the wind, which seemed to be getting stronger rather than weaker. We tried to be patient as we gazed toward the ship, searching for any sign that the zodiacs were being launched.

To our dismay, after an hour or so of waiting, we noticed that the ship appeared to be motoring away from the shore out to deeper waters. It appeared we were being left behind! We could only guess that with no immediate chance to put the zodiacs in the water, it was easier and/or safer for the captain to station the ship further off shore. At this point some of us began to wonder if we might have to spend the night on the island, a rather unsettling proposition considering we lacked provisions and shelter.

A group of gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) negotiate the whitewater as they make their way to shore on Steeple Jason Island in the Falkland Islands.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 200 mm, 1/1250 sec at f/8, ISO 400
Click photo to see high resolution version.

When we stranded passengers realized that our return to the ship was not imminent, we began to wander a bit, and several of us observed a handful of gentoo penguins come and go from the sea at one of their preferred access points. I decided to unpack my camera gear and photograph them for a while. Then, it occurred to me that I had seen large numbers of gentoo penguins coming ashore in the rough surf at the original landing spot, and now I had the time to go photograph them.

Hiking the short distance back to the original landing spot, I held on tightly to my tripod mounted camera, because when the wind gusted, it threatened to knock me and my rig to the ground. I would later learn that wind gusts measuring 80 knots, or over 90 miles per hour, were recorded on the ship during that time. When I reached the original landing beach, large numbers of penguins were still coming ashore, and I found an excellent vantage point for the penguin action next to a large rock outcropping that blocked the wind.

The returning penguins put on quite a show. With each wave that crashed onto the rocky shore, dozens of penguins were propelled towards the land in heaps of foam. The gentoos were getting tossed around roughly in the shore break, bouncing off rocks and each other. The number of birds was staggering and the supply of newly arriving birds seemed infinite. For nearly an hour, in beautiful late-afternoon light, I aimed my lens at the roiling chaos of penguins and sea foam and fired off a ridiculous number of pictures.

Shortly before 8:00 p.m. I received word that the ship’s crew would try to launch the zodiacs to pick us up. Sure enough, the ship had been repositioned close to shore once again, so I hurried back to the pick-up spot to put away my camera gear and to prepare for an exciting zodiac ride. Though the winds had abated somewhat it was a wet and wild zodiac ride back to the ship.

Had the weather cooperated and the zodiac pickups occurred according to schedule, I would have missed out on an amazing photo opportunity. The moral of the story? Don’t lament being stranded in the Falklands. It could turn into an unforgettable experience!

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