The Falklands again - my workshop January 2017

The Falkland Islands rank very, very high in my list of unique destinations for photographers of all kinds and levels. My first visit was in the early 90ies and I am still excited when I am leaving the plane at Mount Pleasant Airport. In the 90ies I was may be not alone in the airport building, but it was just a handfull of travellers and some locals, the talk about left ordnance was compulsary and the waterfront in Stanley was a row of old shacks. You had to show faxes (remember the technology?) to prove that you have accomodation.

Nowadays you can choose between the Military of Defense flight or the LATAM flight from Santiago. The flight from Santiago is nearly always crammed and the small arrival hall can hardly manage the arriving people. There are stories, that LATAM had to unload luggage several times in Punta Arenas as the plane was to heavy.
It is not so much the landbased visitors, who are filling up the planes. Lots of Cruiseships are offering the Falklands as port to start or end a cruise. Entering the Islands is not as pleasant as it was many years ago.
I arrived with a group of 7 photographers, who where keen to experience the wildlife of the Falklands and, of course, to take pictures of Penguins, Albatrosses and other subantarctic species. None of my participants left the islands untouched by the awesome places we visited!

We have been quite lucky this year. After an unusual stormy visit two years ago the weather was a bit better than my "many visits average". Very unusual was the fact, that nearly all stretches of bad weather happened when we had transfers anyway. This resulted in very tired, but happy participants.
I was not so lucky at least at the very beginning in Darwin.
Our first stop is always Darwin, a very nice Lodge with some birds around. After some introductionary talks everybody went outdoors to try their luck on some Steamer Ducks, Oystercatches, Herons and Upland Geese. I did the same, but did not check the files as my prime focus was to help and instruct my guests. The next day on Sea Lion Island, the first "real" wildlife destination, I took some more pictures and downloaded everything to my laptop.

The only camera I used was my Canon with the 100-400 lens, with which I normaly take 80-90 percent of my wildlife pictures. Checking the files, I first thought "oh man I need some practice focusing correcty", my second thought was "I cannot focus as bad as this", my third thought was "it cannot be me" as all pictures where not only unsharp but a bit blurred over the whole zoom range.
A quick test with another Canon body/lens showed the proof. The lens was broken and it was my only long lens I took along!

Somehow I took this disaster much lighter as you might think, I could not change it anyway and I was guiding a workshop and taking own pictures is always nice, but I was the guide, full stop.

Moreover I thought, lets make the best out of this disaster, take it as a challenge and use the medium format body and lenses as main equipment. I am very pleased with the results and the pictures differ a lot from the pics I took 2 years ago with a full working Canon combo with 100-400 lens (and only few shots with my medium format equipment). But you should know, that wildlife in the Falklands can be, albeit with great care, approached very close. Had this happened in Alaska or Africa, it would have been a different story! A 400 or 600mm (full frame equivalent) lens would weight 10-30 kg and is not available anyway. The longest lens I used was a 300mm full frame equivalent, most of the time I used 110mm (full frame equivalent) or wider down to 20mm (full frame equivalent)

Very occasionally I borrowed a Canon lens from one of the participants (many thanks!), but only if I was sure, that we could swap lenses immediatly. Nearly all shots you see in this blog are shot with medium format. It was a challenge but it worked, somehow it was like using film bodies in the early 90ies....

The Penax 645Z is definitly no "real" wildlife body, to many drawbacks, and the AF of the lenses is to slow, most of them do not have image stabilisation and so on. You have to be very careful to pick the right locations and the right "pictures" for such an equipment. The upside is amazing image quality and as I mentioned already, a very different collection of pictures. And it was an example that leaving existing patterns for picture making may be really rewarding!

Did this change my approach to wildlife photography? Yes a bit, at least for destinations like the Falklands. Will my 100-400 stay at home? Definitly not. Without long lens and a fast body you miss lots of pictures. You have to strike a balance, but wildlife needs long lenses, even in the Falklands.

I just hope that this will not happen again any time soon!

Life in the colonies

At this time of the year the colonies of the penguins, shags and albatrosses are full of life but also full of death. Where there is life there is death. Skuas, Giant Petrels, Caracaras and Turkey Vultures prey heavyly on the eggs and chicks. I think I have never ever seen  such high pressure by the birds of prey on the colonies. I may be wrong, but I have never seen so many kills. One of the participants compared it to a carnage. My guess is, that we go through the typical predator-prey relationship cycle, where the peak in the numbers of predators is always one or two season behind the peak in the numbers of prey. In two years I will be back and will be able to compare the years again.

 

 

Click to enlarge the pictures!

Much more relaxed are the colonies of the seals. For Southern Elephant Seals the harem time is over, the pups and the females are in the ocean, only the males lazily hang out on the beaches. The Souther Sea Lions however are still in Harem Mode. Pups are born, the beachmaster is challenged and mating is going on.

The Beaches - Penguins on the (cat)walk

Falkland has many magnificent beaches which are the highways the penguins use to go hunting for fish, squid and krill. King Penguins, Magellanic and Gentoos populate the beaches especially in the morning and late afternoon. A near endless stream of bodies jump out of the water, rest a bit and waddle to their chicks.
The rocky cliffs are the favourite homes of the Rockhopper Penguins and to see them climbing and jumping up and down the steep cliffs is much fun and you can't help to feel admiration for their ability to climb such steep and craggy rocks, very, very hardy birds!

Every species behaves a bit different and every colony seems to have a slightly different rythm. And as usual the Rockhoppers go for the hard and rocky way. They do not choose the sandy bays, but the rocky outcrops to go ashore, right under the cliff they start to climb. But there is always a small place for a small rest to clean their feathers.

To watch them jumping in and out of the water is amazing!

It is one of the marvels in the Falklands to sit at the beach and watch penguins jumping out or into the water or form long rows on the beach, driven by the deep rooted impulse to feed the next generation.

Click to enlarge the pictures!

Equipment

I know that these pages are visited by many people going to similar distinations. Therefore a few words about recommended equipment.
To have fun photographing Falkland wildlife high end bodies are not necessary, a good bridge camera is sufficient to take stunning pictures (as two participants prooved, Jutta with a Bridge Camera and Juergen using a phone camera in addition to his High End Canon). Higher end bodies and lenses have their advantage in image quality, reach of the lens and of course AF for more dynamic sitatutions. If you are an enthusiast bring one or two good DSLR bodies with about 400mm (FF) reach and do not forget a wide angle.

A tripod is NOT recommended or necessary for most situations, but of course there are exceptions to the rule.

Keep everything simple and stupid!

Be sure to bring LOTS of disc space, our group of 8 shot nearly 200.000 frames in 14 days.

Now it is time to talk about my next near disaster. After the initial shock with my 100-400 everything went well. We had good lectures, the weather improved (which resulted in less and less lectures) and we all have been out and shooting, having fun watching and talking about our experience on the beaches or in the colonies. The discs started to fill quickly and even if I did not shoot so much the huge file sizes of medium format resulted in lots of disc space.
The first night in the cabin at The Neck I started to download my files again and suddenly my main external disc started to get time outs every couple of minutes. The download stopped and some files ended being unreadable on my disc, which was fine til now.
I went into alert mode and stayed up a very long time to make sure that the back up was synchronized, but the back up stopped of course from time to time too. I was not very happy.

 

 

The next evening I expected to have the same problem again or even worse, to loose my main disc forever. But nothing happened, everything worked as if there has never been a problem!
During the evening I started to wonder what might be the reason for such a strange behaviour and suddenly I had an idea. Electricity in The Neck is generated by a generator and solar panels, which are charging a bank of batteries, from which the power is drawn for the light, the fridge and of course the computers. The day before, the cabin run on the batteries, this night I started the generator as power in the batteries was a bit low. Generator on - no problem, generator off - problem. I tested again after I stopped the generator, the problem was back, I unplugged the power cord and run the laptop on the internal battery, the problem was gone, and I was happy again.

Somehow the disc or the disc controller or the USB controller had some problems with the power from the battery bank in the Neck, If you encounter similar problems, just use the internal batteries, perhaps this will help!

The Predators

I have never seen so much killings! And it must have been even worse, as long as the chicks have been smaller. In January the chicks of Gentoos (first hatch, of course) and Rockhoppers are already creching and are not taken often. Especially in the shag colonies the pressure by the predators had been extreme!

At the smaller Rockhopper colonies I have seen a behavour, which I have not witnessed as clearly as this year. The creching chicks have been hearded together by some grown up Rockhoppers. So far so good, but the adults behaved like watchdogs and guards. They stood like guards in a circle around the creche, they prevented the chicks from leaving the creche and kept on herding them during the whole day until more and more parents come back from fishing. The more adults the looser the guarding (there is a picture in the colony section of the blog, showing this behavour - IMG5284). Interesting.

All this killing belongs to the cycle of life, but is sometimes hard to see how the chicks are taken minute by minute!

Change of topic, but still related to predators and the pressure they inflict on the colonies. While staying in Volunteer, the warden told a story about the very indecent behaviour of a (german) photographer. The photographer wanted to fly a drone, which was explicitly forebidden by the warden.

 

 

Of course the Photographer flew the drone anyway (which crashed....). I do not have to tell you my opinion about such people. Their behaviour puts wildlife at risc and will result in sometimes unnecessary bans or restrictions which have effect on all visitors in such areas!
If you fly a drone over a colony with so many predators around, the loss of chicks and eggs due to the distraction and probably panic among the adults would be immense. We will offer the same workshop in two years and I will not allow any drones used by any of the participants (this year nobody had a drone).

What else is to say?

I had again a marvelous time on these magic islands. I was lucky with my group, we all had our fun and nobody got ill or suffered any injury (only two lenses and one body was "lost"). The weather was good to us and I will come back!

The Falkland Islands may have changed a lot during the years I have been travelling there, but they are as magical to me as ever!

 

Whats next?

Lots of postprocessing and my winter destination is already on the horizon!

My "From Patagonia to South Georgia and back again" workshop is now open for bookings. It is a unique opportunity to see the highlights of Subantarctica with Penguins, Elephant Seal, Whale watching and much more. Please forward this workshop to anybody (german speaking only) who might be intersted!

Check out the workshop pages !

 


Munich, January 2017