ORCA – port bow! Came the cry from the pilothouse. A sense of excitement swept through the boat as 24 hours earlier we had taken the decision to sail overnight from Beaver Island to Seal Island where it is known that Orcas are often sighted, but not always. It was a bit of a gamble. Our alternative was to sail to the Jason Islands that are regarded as one of the jewels of the Falklands where we would definitely see albatross, penguins and seals. But we already had some great encounters with those and the prospect of Orca whales won our hearts, and now we were here and so were the Orca!
We were in the last few days of our 14 day trip with a group that had signed up with me to lead them on a “Photographic Safari of West Falklands” aboard Skip Novak’s expedition Yacht Pelagic Australis. Our group had met up in Santiago, Chile, some had come from the UK, others from the USA. We then all flew to the Falklands via Punta Arenas in the Magellan Straits landing at the Falklands Mount Pleasant airport. On the ground two 4 x 4’s took us across East Falkland, passing such places as San Carlos and Goose Green, to Port San Carlos, names that were familiar to those that were aware of the war. Pelagic Australis had been positioned to Port San Carlos to save us at least a day in getting us straight out to the wildlife sites that are mainly situated on West Falkland.
Skipper Chris Kobusch and mate Sophie O’Neil met us onboard, along with local Falklands guide Dale Evans, they would sail and guide us for the next 2 weeks visiting the many and varied wildlife locations on the Islands. For some the sailing experience was important but it was up to the individuals to get as involved with the running of the boat as they liked. Pelagic Australis is a 73 foot, 48 ton, aluminium expedition boat so the two sailing crew were always going to need some help which I was right up for. Combining high latitude sailing with wildlife photography is my idea of heaven.
The following morning breakfast and briefings completed we set off into 30 knot headwinds for Pebble Island. No problem for Pelagic. Dolphins accompanied us the whole way which I took as a positive omen, this was going to be good. This wasn’t to be a “do this do that” type of photography course, I was there to help as much or as little as people wanted. The group was small enough to offer individual coaching though we did do group session on “How to set up your camera”. For those with DSLR cameras this would start with matching the viewfinder to your eye so you can see when the subject is in focus. My main advice for shooting wildlife is to keep the shutter speed as high as possible, fill the frame with your subject and where possible focus on the eyes.
We were able to start the photography as soon as we left the dock, photographing the dolphins playing on our wake. Here my technique is to keep the camera focused on one spot as the dolphins usually jump the wake in the same place, when they jump you are already looking through the viewfinder, already focused and ready to fully press the shutter. For sure I get lots of splashes and tails, but amongst them are photographs of the dolphin clear of the water.
Once anchored at Pebble Island we were met onshore with a couple of 4×4’s to take us to three sites that were to far to walk. This was to be the only time we had transport ashore, all the other sites it was down to us! We started at a Rock Hopper Penguin colony, these small penguins have so much character with their long yellow eyebrows and red eyes, many were sitting on eggs, so these are the things I pointed out, at the risk of stating the obvious. I also suggested to shoot from low down so you are looking at the penguins in the eye and try to get blue sky behind them. Focus on the eyes.
We then drove to where Gentoo Penguins were coming ashore, these are larger than the Rock Hoppers and they looked so clean and pristine as the waddled up the beach. The collective name for penguins onshore is actually “a waddle”. Another drive took us some Sea Lions, here the seals were backlit basking on the rocks so another teaching point, this time in exposure compensation. It was almost dark by the time we retuned to the boat. It had been a pretty full on first day; a few hours of sailing, three different wildlife sites and many great photographs. This set the tone for the next 12 days!
Back onboard the computers and iPads come out and everyone is looking at their pictures, lots of oos and ahhs. I explain that keeping the shutter speed high freezes any motion and this also gives the shallow depth of field, this isolates the subject from the foreground and background.
Over the course of the 10 days we visited Saunders Island, Westpoint, New Island, The Colliers Rocks, went back to New Island, then to Hummok Island, Bull Roads, Sea Lion Island, and Volunteer Point. Our routine was often an early start to move the boat to next site, which required only 3 of us up at 0500 to up anchor and sail for a few hours. Once safely anchored in our new location we would go ashore by dinghy and spend most of the day on land. We would walk to the various colonies and beaches that were usually on the windward side of the islands and of course we had anchored on the leeward side, so often it was a bit of a hike. We had as much time as we wanted photographing the wildlife and then return to boat for tea and dinner. We took turns doing the cooking and enjoyed some fine meals, good stories and the odd glass of wine.
Everyday we saw some fantastic wildlife and just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. We saw thousands of Black Browed Albatross, we saw Blue Eyed Shags, Rock Hoppers, Gentoos, and King Penguins, Upland Geese, Kelp Goose, Ruddy Headed Goose, Striated Caracara, Long-Tailed Medowlark, Rufous-Chested Dotterel, Commerson’s Dolphin, Peale’s Dolphins, Sea Lions, Fur Seals, Elephant Seals, Magellanic Oyster Catcher, Blackish Oystercatcher, Patagonian Crested Ducks, Snowy Sheathball, Short-Eared Owl, Patagonia Grey Fox , Falklands Thrush, Black- Crowned Heron, Orca Whales and on it went. Our crew and our guide were fantastic, nothing was too much trouble, Chris and Sophie kept us safe on the water and Dale really knew his stuff on the land. I was particularly impressed when he found the one owl that lived on Humock Island. I have never photographed an owl before and certainly never expected to photograph an owl on the Falklands!
There were so many high points its hard to choose just a few, but perhaps the best photograph of all is of a sea lion swimming in the wave. Dale knew that this sea lion often hunted penguins off a beach on New Island, in fact the BBC had been there a filming few weeks before. We walked over to this beach and there he was, patrolling the beach waiting for prey.
We photographed here for quiet a while, which is photographer speak for ages. The penguins were out to sea in quite big numbers and when a group headed for the shore the seal would move to intercept. We saw him go after quite a few. The penguin would swim for its life, ducking and diving, turning in tight circles and in the water they always got away. On the beach though the seal was faster and we saw him make several attacks, narrowly the penguins escaped but once he was successful getting a penguin as it ran up the beach. You have very mixed emotions when you see close up how nature works.
The sea lion in the wave photograph is quiet special. Most of the group had moved onto to an Albatross colony, but Mike Boardman and I stayed photographing here much longer. I had glimpsed the sea lion in the wave a few times and really wanted to get that shot. The waves were quite big, the water so clear and in one instance the sea lion appeared right in the wave, it was only there for a second and then it was gone. That was what I had been waiting for.
The Orcas too were very special, to see such a fine animal (mammal) so close up and to have time to watch it in its natural environment was amazing. We had allowed for a couple of days in this location and we saw them a number of times, including at first light one morning when Chris and I were on Orca watch they made a kill. We saw them from onshore too where we were lucky (again) that out of the 5 whales in the pod it was the biggest male with the tallest dorsal fin that chose to patrol the shoreline that day. I had a few pictures in my mind that I wanted to take and I would have been happy to achieve just one of them. In particular I wanted the seal pups on the beech with the Orca in the frame to show the reason he was there. I also wanted to show the extreme height of the fin by shooting at water level with the fin breaking the horizon line it emphasizes its height, and I wanted a shot with the whale in the foreground and the boat, Pelagic Australis, out of focus behind. We achieved all of the above, and more.
Our final location was not in our original schedule but I had photographed the King Penguins at Volunteer Point in 2006 with the Super Yacht Adele. I really wanted our group to see the Kings as they are bigger and more photogenic than any of the other species we had seen. The weather was relatively calm and it was only a short detour go via Volunteer Point to our final destination, Port Stanley. We anchored and took the dinghy ashore. As we walked up the beach a “waddle of penguins” came along the ridge looking like a school outing, and over the ridge were a few hundred more King Penguins, some in the colony and others amongst the grazing sheep.
I quietly offered some advice, a reminder to shoot from low down for the blue sky behind and that a picture of both the penguins and the sheep together would be quiet funny. The best shot though was of a waddle of penguins that had just come ashore. I spotted that they would cross a small damp patch of sand and made my way to get in front of them. In photography reflections always work well but with this gang you had to be fast as the diverted away a few times before I caught them just in the right place.
Our trip ended in Port Stanley with a day to look around the town and a beer in the typically English pubs. It had been a fantastic adventure with a great team and a great boat. We had seen more than any of us expected and enjoyed some spectacular wildlife photography. Perhaps my main teaching point is that its not about the camera. To take good pictures your technique, the composition and the light are far more important than the camera. There are two old photojournalism adages worth remembering. “What is the best camera in the world? – the one you have with you”, and “How do you take great pictures? – F8 and BE THERE”, so true in the Falkland Islands.
By Rick Tomlinson
I have always used Nikon, currently the Nikon D810 and for wildlife (and Yachting) usually you need long lens’s, I like the Nikon 200-500 f5.6 zoom lens as it gives me a range to compose a picture, and its like having two lens’s in one, a 200 and 500mm.
Also in the bag is the full range of len’s:
16mm fisheye (not used on this trip)
17-35 f2.8mm wide angle zoom
24-70 f2.8 mid range zoom
70-200 f2.8 telephoto zoom
200-500 f5.6 long telephoto zoom
I also had with me a back up camera body, flash gun, ND filters, cards, hard dive and importantly a compact camera the Sony RX100m3 that I would always have ready in my pocket. This camera also fits in a housing for underwater shots using a monopod.
When hiking I found that a 10lt waterproof bag slung across my chest made access to the camera with the long lens fitted much easier and quicker than a backpack, also safer in the dinghy while coming ashore. The RX100 was in my always in my pocket and this gives me a range from 24-500mm in quiet a simple setup.
I use a minimum shutter speed of 1/1000 second (or faster) and an aperture around f8, ISO400. My favourite lens for photographing wildlife is the Nikon 200-500 f5.6
The main technique I teach is to fill the frame with your subject and by using a fast shutter speed and a wide aperture you keep the foreground and back ground out of focus and your subject is sharp. Always try to focus on the eyes. Its also important to show some pictures of the environment around the subject.