There are a few places in the world where you feel like you’re stepping into a BBC or National Geographic wildlife film, but South Georgia is one of these. Its enormous king penguin colonies are a photographer’s dream.
In November 2022 I was lucky enough to make my first trip to South Georgia and fell in love with photographing the penguins. Whether it was taking panoramic shots of them against the island’s epic landscapes, or composing quieter portraits of individual birds, there was never a shortage of thins to point my lens at. The only problem was editing the thousands of photos I took and making sure I had enough memory and charge on my cameras for the next day’s adventure. Here are some of my favourite images from my trip.
There are around 450,000 pairs of king penguins on South Georgia, which is about half the world’s population. The island has more than 30 colonies in total. The largest is at St Andrews Bay, which is home to a staggering 150,000 pairs. For this reason alone, it’s one of the most popular landing sites for visitors. Along with St Andrews Bay I was able to visit Salisbury Plain and Fortuna Bay, but there are colonies across the island.
South Georgia is such a hotspot for king penguins because of its proximity to the Antarctic Convergence, where the cold polar waters meet the more temperate ocean. This makes it rich in squid, krill and lantern fish – all prey items that are high on the king penguin’s menu. They can swim great distances to find the best feeding spots – some of those birds you see waddling up the beach when you land might have just swum hundreds of kilometres for their dinner.
King penguins have a rather unusual breeding cycle. They take around 14 months to raise a chick, so they don’t breed every year. One happy consequence of this is that the colonies are occupied year-round and there are always lots of chicks in their fluffy brown coats to see: an instant wildlife photographer’s dream.
Unlike all other penguins apart from the emperor, king penguins don’t make a nest. Instead, they carry their eggs tucked into a warm fold and carry it with them. If you’re in a colony and spot a penguin that looks like it’s walking on its heels, that means it’s incubating an egg. Eggs are typically laid around January, but it’s sometimes possible to see incubating adults earlier in the season.
The sound of a king penguin colony is almost unearthly. As you approach, it’s like the roar of a distant music festival. The panoramic sound is almost overwhelming at first, but once you’re tuned in you start to hear the individual birds. There are two main modes: the insistent high whistling of chicks demanding food from a parent just returned from the sea, and then the trumpeting and accordion wheeze of the adults looking for their offspring among the tumult.
Keep an eye out for moulting penguins. Adults shed all their feathers every year in what’s called a catastrophic moult – when you see them in various states of disarray you’ll understand why. It takes four weeks to replace their plumage, so the penguins have to hungrily remain on land until the new feathers have grown. Given how it’s almost impossible not to read human emotions onto these inquisitive birds, I thought they looked like particularly grumpy teenagers – their lack of calling certainly adds to their sullen demeanour.
The sheer number of king penguins on South Georgia presents an unusual dilemma for a photographer. I’m used to waiting patiently for my subject, not being baffled at which one of the myriad scenes to point my camera at. To take your bearings, get low to the ground to put yourself closer to the bird’s world. But before you do, just take some time to soak it all in. There’s so much to see that this is one place you don’t have to rush to take photos: make sure you put your camera down to just enjoy the spectacle.
Most landings in South Georgia drop you a modest walk away from the colonies to minimise the risk of disturbance. Although you’ll have a natural tendency to rush to the main action, don’t forget to spend some time on the beach. There’s always lots going on here, with rafts of penguins coming ashore to head inland. Depending on the time of season, you’ll usually get the opportunity to see elephant seals, fur seals and plenty of other wildlife.
I’ve been lucky enough to photograph some great wildlife spectacles around the world but seeing South Georgia’s king penguins is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had. If you have the opportunity to visit them, they’re not to be missed. Just remember to pack a spare memory card or two for your camera.
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