I cannot honestly say that penguins had a hold on my heart anymore than any other creature, before moving to the Falkland Islands. But in this part of the world, penguins quite considerably out-number people. Based on 2012 Census figures, the Falkland Islands are home to around 3,000 people (excluding British armed forces at the military base). Which is in stark contrast with the 1,000,000+ (no, not a typo, really actually over one million!) penguins which come ashore from the cold surrounding waters of the South Atlantic Ocean. Understandably, you quickly grow a strong affection for them.
So, that brings me to Penguin Awareness Day. 20th January. Yes, it really is a thing, and not to be confused with World Penguin Day either, which is 25th April. As per the usual format for ‘Awareness’ days, it’s an opportunity for penguin aficionados to shout it from the rooftops, and for everyone interested to learn a little bit more about this endearing bird.
I’d never seen a penguin outside a zoo or sanctuary before coming out to the Falklands. Seeing wild penguins in their natural habitat is an incredible experience. Beyond compare. You also get an insight into penguin life that you simply cannot hope to gain observing penguins in a more contrived environment. So, doing my little bit for raising awareness about penguins, I’d like to share some of the things I’ve come to realise about penguins. One little penguin pearl, for each one of the six months I’ve been here in the Falkland Islands:
Anything you’ve ever experience in a zoo is nothing compared to the smell of penguins hundreds, sometimes thousands or penguins gathered en masse. It is potent. To put it mildly! Although it isn’t so much the penguins as their poo (or guano to use the proper term) which is the odious offender. On the plus side, it does make finding penguin colonies much easier, as the smell carries on the wind, reassuring you that you are looking in the right area, long before you finally find them!
Personality traits seem very different for different penguin species. In the Falkland Islands we regularly see King, Gentoo, Southern Rockhopper, Magellanic, and Macaroni penguins. Gentoo penguins definitely seem the most nervous of the five species, whereas Southern Rockhoppers are totally cool customers, who seem completely unaffected by having a person in their midst. I feel honoured to say that I have been toe to toe with a very curious little Rockhopper penguin who took it upon himself to leave his sentry spot to check me out before returning to the colony.
I’d always thought ‘beach’ or ‘snow’ when I pictured penguins. So when I saw my first ever wild penguins – a colony of gentoo – way back from the beach, behind the sand dunes and on green fields, their location was certainly unexpected! Even more surprisingly, Magellanic penguins live underground in burrows.
Rockhoppers can and do literally hop up almost sheer cliff faces to create their colonies out of reach from the crashing waves. It is quite a spectacle to watch.
Not all baby penguins are cute little monochrome bundles of fluff. King penguin chicks, whilst adorably fluffy, are a rather surprising dark, chocolatey brown, eventually fading to a softer mink colour before taking their more familiar black and white uniform.
Different penguin species also have different calls. Gentoo and Rockhoppers are a pretty quiet bunch compared to their bigger King counterparts, and Magellanic penguins have a braying call that sounds like that of a donkey. Perhaps no surprise then that in the Falkland Islands they are also known as Jackass penguins!
A small selection of bite-sized penguin pen portraits, which I hope served to entertain and inform. Now, I guess all that remains is to say “so long, and thanks for all the fish” , as Douglas Adams wrote in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Yes, I know, it was the dolphins. But truly, you’ve never seen greedy eaters until you’ve seen a full King penguin waddle up a beach, barely able to move one foot in front of the other because of all the food in his belly.