A Chorus of Kings

One can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin.

-John Ruskin

Although I was sad to leave Antarctica, it wasn’t long before I started to feel excited about our next port of call. It took the Sapphire Princess two days of northward travel to reach Stanley, East Falkland. I spent much of those two days in eager anticipation, unable to stop myself from daydreaming about the tour Vince and I had booked several months earlier. When the day finally arrived, I was out of bed before my alarm even sounded.

This was the only day of the trip that we’d booked an excursion through Princess. Normally, Vince and I prefer to either rent a car and go off on our own, or book directly with local tour companies, but in this case going through Princess was our only option. The population of the Falkland Islands is only around 3,500 people, and the Sapphire Princess was carrying over 2,000 passengers, so every available tour company on the island was reserved by Princess for this particular day trip. This meant our tickets cost a lot more than we wanted to pay for them, but if everything I’d read about our destination was correct, the experience would be well worth the extra money.

Booking a Princess branded excursion did have some extra benefits though, namely, it gave us priority disembarkation. Stanley is a tender port, and passengers would be transported to shore in the ship’s own lifeboats. Vince and I were able to get on one of the earliest tenders and before we knew it, we were on solid land, meeting our guide for the day, John. He led us over to his 4×4, and gave us a rough timeline for the tour as we all hopped into the tall vehicle.

It would take us about two hours to reach our destination, which was Volunteer Point, a beach that is home to three species of penguin. The first half of the drive would be on paved roads, but after that we would be off-roading until we reached the beach. As we drove, Vince and I asked John a lot of questions about what it’s like to live in such a remote place as the Falkland Islands. It was incredibly interesting to hear what daily life is like in a small, island community, and about their unique experience as a British overseas territory. I also spent plenty of time looking out of the window during the drive. The landscape was beautiful in its starkness. There were no trees in sight, but the rolling grasslands were broken by craggy mountaintops that thrusted upwards as though they were trying to break free of the earth.

After about an hour, John pulled off at a remote rest stop where we got an opportunity to use the bathroom and stretch our legs and then it was time the leave the paved road behind.

Off-roading was a lot of fun. The minute our tires hit grass, I began to feel like we were on a real adventure. John expertly steered the 4×4 up steep hills and around deep, muddy ruts, as I held onto a handle on the dashboard to steady myself. The landscape that had seemed distant when we were back on the highway became immediate, and the sparse looking fields came alive with diverse and interesting plant life. I could also see upland geese and ruddy headed geese among the long grasses whenever we were near a body of water.

I knew we were getting close to Volunteer Point when the horizon seemed to disappear entirely. The waving yellow grass in the distance broke off with nothing but the blue of the ocean and sky beyond it. Shortly after that, we started to see Magellanic penguins poking their heads out of burrows along the side of the two-track where woolly sheep grazed. It was an odd sight to see sheep and penguins living alongside each other, and not something I could have guessed I’d ever encounter in my life.

My heart started racing with adrenaline as we pulled into a grassy car park where we had to clean our shoes in a foot bath before we could start exploring the penguin colonies. John told us what time to meet back at the 4×4, and then set us free. A short walk to the edge of the parking area revealed a scene that could have been plucked directly out of a David Attenborough film. Magellanic penguins were burrowed along the borderland of where a sandy beach gave way to trampled grass. Further inland, gentoo penguins sat on nests overlooking a glimmering, sapphire lake. But the most spectacular sight of all were the regal, three foot tall king penguins that fanned out over the entire area, culminating in a dense huddle at the base of a hill.

The king penguins were the reason we’d picked this particular tour. They are second tallest penguins on earth next to the emperor penguins whose lives are intrinsically tied to the ice of Antarctica, and they look somewhat similar to the emperors at a glance. They have slimmer bodies than their southern cousins, and their ear patches are a bright orange instead of the emperor’s soft yellow. King Penguins also tend to have orange-colored mandibles, while emperors’ are more often pink. They also have a more prolonged and less extreme breeding period than the emperor penguins whose devotion to raising their young in the least hospitable environment on earth was made famous by the movie March of the Penguins.

Gazing out across a field full of penguins, I suddenly felt at a loss for where to begin.  We started walking toward the king penguin huddle, but were quickly distracted by a Magellanic parent and one of its chicks preening each other outside of their burrow. Needless to say this was too adorable to ignore, so we watched them for a while, then got distracted again when a juvenile king penguin waddled right over to us. I started photographing some straggling king penguins, but eventually we decided to get back on track and finally go over to see the nesting area where most of the king penguins were huddled.

As we approached the huddle, the constant wooshing of strong winds became layered with a melody of strange, honking penguin calls. Hundreds of penguins stood shoulder to shoulder, focused solely on protecting their eggs and chicks under their brood pouches, until a wandering interloper barreled through. Whenever a penguin attempted to push its way through the crowd, it inevitably whacked its neighbors with careless, outstretched wings, sending everyone around it into a frenzy of snapping beaks and loud sounds of protestation. These little scuffles took place in tandem all throughout the huddle, and the result was a cacophony of noise and motion, all blurred together in vibrant, contrasting colors, making it nearly impossible to keep my focus on any one penguin.

I had to take a few moments to take in the scene as a whole, and let my brain adjust to the utter chaos before I could start to home in on specific interactions. I was particularly interested in parents and their chicks, which presented a unique opportunity due to the species’ drawn out breeding cycle. In fact, King penguins breeding cycle, which lasts 14-16 months, is the longest of any species of penguin, and females will lay eggs any time from November to April.  Because of this prolonged breeding period, we were able to see chicks in various stages of development from unhatched, all the way up to recently molted.  Young chicks are grey, but as they grow, their feathers become brown and fluffy as they near readiness to molt into their swimming feathers.  After molting, the juveniles look much more similar to their parents, but the distinctive coloration on their necks is still a pale yellow in contrast to the deep orange of the mature adults.  

I probably could have spent days upon days just watching the penguin huddle, but Vince and I wanted to make sure we saw as much as we could in the couple of hours that we had, so we took a break from the huddle to see if there were any penguins over at the nearby beach. We walked over to the sand, taking special care not to accidentally fall into any Magellanic burrows, and made a brief stop to photograph a two-banded plover along the way.

Much to our delight, we found a couple of small groups of penguins on the beach, waddling resolutely toward the shoreline. We stuck near a trio of them as they called out to another pair that was farther down the beach. The five penguins ended up meeting up with each other, and seemed to all great one another once they were finally together. I fear that I’m tiptoeing into the realm of anthropomorphism with this observation, which is admittedly difficult to avoid in the case of penguins. They walk upright, and look like they’re wearing suits, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t imagining them making smalltalk in posh accents.  

Now we’d seen everything except for the gentoo colony, so Vince and I turned around and heading back inland to where they were nesting. Their nests were spread further out from each other, and there were vultures and shorebirds soaring overhead, looking for any opportunity to snatch an unsuspecting chick. We saw a couple of parents sitting on top of their chicks, protecting them from the threatening birds.

With the further spaced nests, it was also easier to see that there were dead chicks here and there. This served as a reminder that we were in a truly a wild place. Since we were able to walk among the wildlife without the protection of vehicle, I’d nearly forgotten that the penguins still lived with the constant threat of predation by other animals, and would need to survive this along with a host of other threats if they were to make it to adulthood. While it was sobering to see this reality, I also know that vultures need to eat too. We humans like to take the side of whichever animal we’ve deemed the cutest, but nature doesn’t (and shouldn’t) work like that. Vultures aren’t the bad guys, just like penguins aren’t the bad guys for eating krill. All of these species need to eat and live and die in order to maintain a sustainable food chain.

We were running low on time when we left the gentoos, but we wanted to make one last stop back at the king penguin colony before returning to the car. This time we were able to make some closer observations of their behavior. I loved watching them stretch their necks into the air to try to see over the crowd. We witnessed a pair of them mating, and even got to watch a couple of chicks eating regurgitated food out of their parents’ bills.

All too soon, it was time to meet back at the 4×4 for our drive back to Stanley. John gave us a lunch he’d packed for us, and we ate it as we bounced along back through the grassy fields. We arrived back in Stanley with just enough time to visit a couple of gift shops before boarding the ship. We even ran into some of our other group members who had taken a different tour, and we all caught each other up on how our days had been while we shopped for postcards and little penguin figurines.

That night, the Sapphire Princess continued on her path northward. We would have two more sea days before our next stop, and by then we would be far enough north for sunshine and palm trees, a definitive end to our days of down coats and beanies. Our trip was about to make a drastic change in theme, and I was ready for it!


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