How to Plan a Photography Trip to the Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands is one of those rare and very special corners of the world where you can truly escape from your reality – and that’s probably what many of us are craving the most right now! There’s a bewitching wildness and a true sense of freedom here, brought by a rugged, weather-beaten landscape that’s ruled by wildlife and not by people.
If you’re looking for a place to fulfil your wildlife photography dreams, then these isolated little islands should be at the top of your list.
What you can expect to see
First and foremost, there are five species of penguin to entertain you and many of them will be right outside your window. Magellanic, gentoo, king, macaroni, and rockhopper penguins breed in the Islands, with four of those species in abundance and most of them very easy to access.
Each species has its own distinct character: for attitude in front of the lens, head to the rugged sea cliffs to catch the spunky rockhopper penguins going about their day. As soon as you sit and watch their behaviour, you will see what I mean! King penguins are absolutely striking and majestic, but they’re not short of comedy and you simply won’t tire of how magical they can look in a photograph.
My top species for photography here, however, is the black-browed albatross. Not only are they absolutely stunning creatures, but they are found in some of the Falklands’ most spectacular locations, providing you with very special opportunities to capture some truly beautiful wide-angles. The Falklands hold around 75% of the world’s population of these albatross, which equates to around half a million breeding pairs. They rear a single chick each year on a tall nest made of mud, in large colonies often mixed with other seabirds.
You will have unrivalled possibilities to catch them in flight as they pass by the cliffs, often making many attempts before landing safely on the edge.
Second on my must-see-must-photograph list is one of the world’s rarest birds of prey: the striated caracara. Did you ever encounter a wild bird of prey that tried to steal the sandwich right out of your hand? No? Well, prepare yourself! This is their speciality in some places!
Exceptionally characterful and downright cheeky birds, the caracara is known locally as the “Johnny Rook” and they are found on most of the outer islands in quite large numbers. They provide a unique chance to observe and easily photograph not only hunting and feeding behaviours, but there are also places to see them on the nest without causing disturbance.
For those with a love of marine life, there are a handful of locations where you can spend time alongside some more mammalian species: southern elephant seals, southern sea lions, and south American fur seals all breed here in fairly large numbers.
The elephant seals in particular are very rewarding in front of the camera, with the big bull males fighting for access to females at the start of the season. The beautiful, black-coated pups are born shortly afterwards on wide, sandy beaches where you can easily spend the day. A little later in the summer, and probably one the best wildlife experiences you can have here, the roly-poly, now-silvery pups are weaned from their mothers and become wide-eyed and curious of anything that wanders into their zone.
6 wildlife photography locations on the Falkland Islands
Allow yourself a minimum of two weeks in the Falklands, travel to the furthest corners of the archipelago, and you will be able to pack in an unforgettable experience of these windswept islands. These are my favourite spots for the best of the best:
1. New Island
Furthest to the south west and probably one of the most challenging to reach, New Island is tough to beat for an epic wildlife and landscape photography location.
The highlight here is the drama of nature-in-action at the north beach, where a male sea lion regularly hunts gentoo penguins. It’s brutal, but it’s raw nature!
For the best shooting spots, head to the Settlement Rookery and the Cathedral Cliffs albatross colony for spectacular golden hour opportunities and shoot backlit seabirds to your heart’s content. Or, head out in rough weather to capture the rockhopper penguins ‘flying’ ashore through humungous waves at the rocky landing area beneath the cliffs.
Early birds should head to the sand beach area near the Gulches, to the South End beach, or (equally rewarding but a longer walk) the North End beach – it is possible to arrange to stay at a hut there. Gentoo penguins will head back out to sea in droves at both of these beaches before the sun rises, giving beautiful opportunities for creative dawn photography.
Up on the cliffs at Land’s End Bluff, Grand Cliff, and Cathedral Cliffs there are sensational views and endless compositions for the landscape enthusiast. New Island is also one of the only places to see our small, nocturnally-active petrel species: the thin-billed prion. The largest numbers in the world breed here!
2. Carcass Island and West Point Island
For photographing the small bird species, these two islands should be at the top of your list. Carcass Island is rodent-free, so there are many wrens, pipits, finches, and other ground-nesters to be found here and they’re all relatively tame, meaning you can leave the 600mm at home!
There are also great colonies of gentoo penguins, Magellanic penguins burrowing all over the island, elephant seals, and birds of prey. The scenery here is beautiful and the food is second-to-none, which is always a bonus after a long day out and about!
It’s not possible to stay on West Point Island, but you can visit from Carcass Island by boat and get your fix of the incredible black-browed albatross, rockhopper penguins, and stunning scenery at The Devil’s Nose, as well as a picturesque Falkland settlement which offers many possibilities to photograph the small birds, too.
Dolphins are often sighted alongside the boat and maybe, if the weather is exceptionally calm, there could be a chance to sail around the dramatic cliffs of this beautiful island.
3. Steeple Jason Island
This is a rather exceptional island and you will need to plan and book well in advance, with the help of a local guide. It’s not possible to stay here without a guide who is approved by the island’s management and owners, but the extra logistics are well worth the effort as this isn’t your regular stay.
Accommodation here is self-catering but very comfortable, and you will be completely alone here as the island is uninhabited! Hence the requirement for a local guide to accompany you.
Access is extremely weather-dependent, is only by boat, and strictly through an arrangement with Carcass Island. One or two days cannot be planned here – you must allow longer for delays due to weather.
Despite its logistical challenges, Steeple Jason cannot be compared to any other island – except perhaps New Island, in that it is remote in the extreme. The biggest draw here is the largest black-browed albatross colony in the Islands: around 140,000 pairs.
The island is also striking and wild in its scenery, with a razor-sharp ridge running the length of the island, giving it its name. The narrow break in the centre of the island almost splits it in two, and it’s here that you land by boat.
Many other species can be found here, but photographers will simply delight in the endless angles for capturing the magic of this seabird colony. Look out for the albatross “runways” on the edges of the colonies; with no high point to launch from here, these huge birds must take a run-up in order to take off!
4. Sea Lion Island
Sea Lion is closer to Stanley, easier to access than most, and has the most comfortable accommodation with full-board, rewarding you after a long day in the field. Micky, the owner, is quite used to photographers wanting to be out for the best light (usually during dinner time!) and he is typically quite flexible, meaning you won’t miss any vital shooting time.
This island has so much wildlife to offer that you simply can’t go wrong. It’s here that the elephant seals breed in the largest numbers on the huge sand beaches on either side of the island. Spend sunrise towards the eastern end of the island: the north beach will offer gentoo penguins heading out to sea, sometimes in big surf, and the south beach will give you elephant seal pups in a golden glow.
The seals tend to be more active early in the day and again later in the evening. Look out for the resident orcas patrolling the coast… they are hunting elephant seals and seeing a hunt is quite a spectacle. Equally, at sunset this same south beach is a good spot to see many shorebirds.
The best sunset light, however, is up at the rockhopper and king cormorant colonies on the cliffs, towards the far end of the island. Don’t miss the ponds (especially the one tucked away in the tussac grass) for herons, grebes, waterfowl, and wrens in the tall grasses.
Gentoo penguins nest right next to the lodge here, so if you’re having a lazy day you can just sit on the comfortable sofas enjoying the view and pop out when the good light shines through the clouds. Many small birds, including snipe, can also be beautifully photographed just meters from the lodge.
Sea Lion Island isn’t really for the landscape photographer, although the cliffs at the far end can be spectacular on a day with big seas.
5. Kidney Island
To see thousands of sooty shearwaters fill the sky, gliding over just above your head, calling out to their partners in the burrows beneath the thick tussac grass is something very special and also unique to Kidney Island – a tiny gem located just outside Stanley and only accessible by a half-day boat trip.
Although the nature of the access does limit photographic possibilities, I would still recommend this for the experience of seeing these birds; you really can’t appreciate it until you’ve been there. The action will be after sunset (the birds only return when it’s getting dark, to avoid daytime predators), so you will need to prepare for that with your equipment, keeping in mind that flash photography is not permitted.
A guide is required here, too, but this is usually provided with the boat. You can cross through the thick tussac to see the rockhopper penguin colony on the rugged side of the island, which is quite a nice spot for photographing the punks of the penguin world!
6. The Murrell and Kidney Cove
Close to town and easy to access by private tour, this is a surprisingly rewarding spot for penguins (and plenty of other birds, too) in case you didn’t get your fill on the outer islands. Rockhopper, Magellanic, gentoo, and king penguins are all here within a fairly easy walking distance of each other, and with some gorgeous scenery to boot. You can also spot our famous northern rockhopper penguin here (and possibly some hybrids, too).
The rockhoppers nest in one of my favourite Falkland spots. The rock formations here are so beautiful and the birds’ surroundings are really colourful and interesting. Their exit and entrance to the sea is also very scenic, and it’s possible to get all kinds of angles on the little colonies here; whatever you need to suit the light.
Owners Lisa and Adrian are quite flexible, so ask about an early visit to catch the morning light and stay all day, if you don’t have time to stay overnight.
Towards Kidney Cove you will find the gentoo and king penguins. This is one of the most beautiful little pieces of our coastline and the beaches have just recently been cleared of mines from the 1982 conflict with Argentina, so it’s new ground! There is also a lagoon, which attracts the penguins later in the season. The number of king penguins here is small (a large colony can be found at Volunteer Point, but mind your visit doesn’t clash with the droves of cruise ship passengers in the peak season).
Accommodation is simple and self-catering, but you will be blissfully alone, and I’m quite sure you will spend nearly all of your time outdoors anyway.
Photography equipment for the Falkland Islands
The Falklands’ wildlife is exceptionally tame, and in most instances you simply don’t need a long lens. In fact, they can be more of a hindrance due to the frequent, strong winds on the islands. Something smaller and more manageable will also allow you to be more adventurous in the rugged terrain and access the better locations for shooting. For the same reason, if you use a tripod then make sure it’s a sturdy one able to withstand the wind.
I would recommend a 300mm lens, especially if you have a crop-sensor camera, or 400mm if you shoot full-frame. I shoot with a 200mm f/2.8 prime a lot of the time here, especially for penguins, albatross, and elephant seals (as well as for the striated caracaras because they’re so bold; they are usually very close!)
If I need more reach I will use a 1.4x teleconverter, and the remainder of the time I use a 400mm. A telephoto zoom such as a 100-400mm is a very good bet for this trip.
A good wide-angle lens is a must for the stunning landscapes, and for capturing the immense sea bird colonies. The Falklands are a prime dark-sky location for star photography too, so if you are keen to try that then bring along a remote shutter release and a good tripod. I would add an ND filter or two into my bag to make the most of the beautiful coastal scenery and long, summer evenings – perfect for long exposures.
Spare batteries, plenty of memory cards and, if you can fit it in, a spare camera body just in case… there are no camera stores here or repair outlets, so if something goes wrong then you will be stuck. Also, pack some dry bags to keep your gear safe on boat trips and when out in bad weather, plus a rain-cover for your camera and your backpack if you have one. A good lens cloth and a spare, for wiping the salt spray when it inevitably catches you out on the exposed cliffs.
Bear in mind that the means of travel between the outer islands is by small, 8-seater aircraft and so space and weight are limited. The pilots will thank you for letting the air service know in advance how much gear you’re likely to be travelling with, and also for not packing it all into one enormous suitcase that can’t be easily loaded into the aircraft’s small hold!
When to visit the Falkland Islands for wildlife
The Southern Hemisphere season runs from October through until about the end of March. The prime times to visit the Falklands are from late October until around mid-February, or slightly earlier. Albatross are here from the start and are the last to leave, so you won’t miss those no matter what time you visit! The very best overall time, however, for most of the wildlife is around mid-November until the end of January.
Early to mid-October is best for the bull elephant seals fighting, and mid-October is their peak pupping season. In mid-November those pups will be weaned from their mothers and at their curious stage (this is also when the orca hunt most frequently).
Penguins begin nesting early, so from mid-October onwards you will find most species very active, with the exception of the king penguins who have a long and complex breeding cycle – you will encounter birds of this species at various stages of courting, nesting, chick-rearing, and moulting throughout the season.
Hatching for many species is around the second week of December, and this is the beginning of the best time to photograph the albatross and rockhopper chicks – a little later on and they will be at the ‘cute’ stage and not so hidden away underneath their parents, but all-in-all there is a lot of activity with all species at this time and the days are at their longest. Sunrise is early though, so you will need to be out well before 4am and the last light can be as late as 10pm in midsummer!
Fur seals will pup around Christmas time and sea lions in January, so if it’s the mammals you’re more interested in then after the New Year is better.
By the second week of February there is still plenty going on, but the rockhopper penguin chicks will have left and the adults will go to sea for some weeks to feed up before moult.
How to get there
There are two routes to the Falklands: LATAM airlines from Santiago or Punta Arenas in Chile, South America. Or a more direct, but more expensive, route from the Royal Air Force base Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, England. The latter is twice a week but can be unreliable due to weather, and seats for civilians are limited. Contact the Falkland Islands Government Office in London for more information about this: [email protected]
LATAM is once a week, but you will need to consider an extra night stopover in Chile, both on the way to and from the Falklands, due to the flight timings. Book online at LATAM airlines or, better still, contact a local agent in the Islands to arrange a flight – this way if there are any delays you will have less drama trying to rearrange things. International Tours and Travel in Stanley can assist here: [email protected]
The Falkland Islands Tourist Board website is a little tricky to navigate, but it does have many of the contacts for places and tours to help you on your way.
Have a great trip!