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Swingin' the Penguin: A Wildlife Photography Experience

 

I was the sole occupant of a mile-long stretch of beach, which is perhaps not surprising when one considers it was just past 4am on an austral summer’s morning at Volunteer Point in the Falkland Islands.

I had been lured from my bed an hour earlier by a horizontal stripe of fiery, deep orange sunlight beginning to emerge on the horizon. I now sat on the beach watching lines of king and gentoo penguins form hesitant, orderly queues at the water’s edge. With each passing minute they were being joined by more of their number, filing from their rookeries on the dunes above.

 
 King penguins gather on Volunteer Beach in the dawn light   Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f5 ISO 4000

King penguins gather on Volunteer Beach in the dawn light

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f5 ISO 4000

 

A small group at the front of a line of king penguins moved slowly into the water, the waves lapping at their waist. Suddenly, they turned in panic and waddled quickly back to the beach. The remainder had watched their progress with nervousness and, startled by the response of their brethren, also moved quickly from the waters edge. Something menacing lurked beneath the waves!

I sat on a rock on the beach, armed with two cameras. In my hand was a Nikon D500 fitted with a Nikkor 300mm f4. I also had a Nikkor 14-24mm f2.8 and Lumix GM5 with a 12-32mm f3.5-5.6 lens on my belt. I was coming to the end of a fortnight exploring and taking wildlife photographs in the incredible Falkland Islands archipelago.

Without warning, the source of the penguins’ angst became clear. A huge apparition rose from the waves about 10m in front and to the left of me. An enormous bull sea lion was charging up the beach. Instinctively I raised the D500 to my eye to shoot. With an equivalent focal length of 450mm I was both too close for comfort and to get the creature in shot. I ran a few metres to my right and alternated between taking photographs and simply watching; I was now satisfied that the quarry was not me but a king penguin behind me. I fired short bursts.

 

Bull sea lion emerging from the sea after a king penguin.

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f5 ISO 3200

Chasing up the beach

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f5 ISO 3200

 

I was using manual mode and auto-ISO; which is the norm for me when shooting wildlife in varying light conditions. I had the shutter speed set to 1/1000sec and the aperture at f5. The camera had set the ISO at 4000.

I continued to fire in short bursts until it became apparent that the penguin had won this chase and the sea lion had given up, exhausted by the endeavour. Neither penguins nor sea lions are designed to move quickly on land. King penguins in particular are unable to move particularly quickly out of water. They walk with a wobbly gait and cannot move with the speed of, for example, a Gentoo or Magellanic penguin both of which can move almost at the run.

Likewise, sea lions are ungainly and lollop forward using their flippers for propulsion. They can move faster than king penguins but on this occasion the penguin had a head start. The sea lion slumped into the sand apparently exhausted by the chase and unable to move further. Whilst my natural sympathies lay with the underdog, the penguin, I now felt quite sorry for the pathetic figure conjured by this huge beast. After all, it has to eat as well.

 

Defeated...

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/200sec f5 ISO 1600

 

As the sea lion slowed down, I decreased the shutter speed to 1/320 sec in an effort to reduce the ISO and so improve image quality. The ISO halved to 2000.

 

...and exhausted

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/500sec f5 ISO 2500

 

Slowly, the sea lion edged its way back into the water and disappeared from view.

Less than a minute later, it reappeared, again moving at full charge up the beach. I was more confident and held my ground in the hope that it did not have a taste for human flesh. I was back at 1/1000sec and f5 and the slight increase in light had dropped the ISO to 3200. Notwithstanding, the use of matrix metering caused some underexposure in the dark body of the sea lion and the need to recover shadow details in post processing.

Again, the creature had overstretched itself and came to a halt sooner than previously, again to the relief of the pursued penguin. I have never seen a creature display a more fed-up posture than this sea lion on that morning. After swaying briefly, it crashed onto the sand where it lay for a few minutes, slowly regaining its strength and composure. Then, after a couple of seemingly gargantuan efforts, managed to haul its enormous body back into the south Atlantic. I took the same steps as previously, lowering my shutter speed as the creature slowed and taking advantage of the vibration-reduction (VR) offered by this lens to reduce the ISO and improve image quality. I was at 1/500sec f5 and ISO 2500. The second charge had given me some frame-filling shots of this magnificent creature.

I continued to watch the scene before me. To my left, satisfied their route was briefly safe, gentoo penguins were making an orderly entry into the sea in large numbers to commence a days fishing. To my right, dozens of king penguins stood in small groups several metres from the shoreline, staring warily out to sea. Bobbing on the surface of the water sat the biggest clue to the current whereabouts of the threat; a number of southern giant petrels waited patiently, anticipating the tasty remains of the sea lion’s breakfast; when it came.

About five minutes later I glimpsed the large black bulk of the sea lion moving quickly, sleekly and effortlessly through a breaking wave parallel to the shoreline. The animal was in the heart of its comfort zone. Moments later, it was out of the water again and charging at a small group of about eight king penguins. This time it was much further away from me, probably a 100m and so I needed every bit of my lens’ reach to capture the action. On the positive side, I had both sea lion and penguin in my viewfinder simultaneously so was better able to present the context. I was back to 1/1000sec but had increased the aperture to the maximum f4 in order to minimise ISO, which the camera set to 3200. I held my ground and continued to shoot until I felt I had exhausted the immediate opportunity, whereupon I ran to obtain a closer position.

 

Riding the Surf: Following two failed attempts to capture a penguin for breakfast, the bull sea lion rides the surf back towards Volunteer Beach.

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f4 ISO 3200

The Chase is On: On his third exhausting attempt, the penguins can be seen on the right of the pictuire attemtping to outrun their pursuer. Unfortunately, king penguins cannot actually run.

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f4 ISO 3200

 

This time the sea lion was successful in its efforts and had captured a king penguin in its mouth. Interestingly, a later examination in post processing showed just how blinkered its efforts were. It actually ran past one penguin only feet away, in pursuit of its final quarry.

The sea lion proceeded to brutally assault and kill the penguin, holding it in its mouth and swinging the poor creature in the air until it was certainly dead. It returned to the shoreline once again exhausted but no longer displaying the body language of hopelessness and defeat as it had on the two previous occasions.

 

Swingin' the Penguin: On his third attempt, he finally gets the success he was looking for. Here, he is attempting to literally shake the unfortunate penguin out of its skin so that he can eat it. A southern giant petrel flies overhead and three kelp gulls watch nearby, anticipating the opportunity to feast on the remains.

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f4 ISO 3200

Taking a breath between swings!

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1000sec f4 ISO 3200

 

The scavenging petrels and kelp gulls were now excited into action and as the sea lion entered the water with its prey, they mobbed his every move, snatching pieces of flesh when the opportunity arose. I increased the shutter speed to better freeze the action of the frenzy, first to 1/1250sec and then 1/1600sec that caused increases in ISO of 3200 and 5000 respectively.

 

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1250sec f4 ISO 3200

Nikon D500 300mm f4. 1/1600sec f4 ISO 5000

 

Whilst the gruesome scene played itself out at sea the remaining king penguins ambled down to the water and commenced their days fishing, happy that the attention of their predator was now elsewhere.

 

Decision Time: Post incident, a group of king penguins walk up and down the length of Volunteer Beach in the early morning, plucking up the courage to go to sea, where they know they may still encounter hungry sea lions.

Nikon D500 14-24mm f2.8 at 16mm. 1/160sec f18 ISO 800

 

By the time the entire event was over, I had been joined by Gérard and Martine, a French couple also staying at Volunteer Point. For my part, I spent another hour taking photographs of the morning before returning to the Warden’s House for breakfast, grateful that I could enjoy it without having to engage in the effort I had witnessed earlier that morning.

I visited Volunteer Point in December 2016.

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