Why I Love Traveling to the Falkland Islands as a Landscape and Wildlife Photographer

September 12, 2019 Doug O'Neill

Acacia Johnson

After sailing hundreds of nautical miles from Argentina, the rolling green landscapes of the Falkland Islands first appeared stark, weathered by the constant wind of the open ocean. Yet as we approached the white sand beach of Saunders Island for our first shore landing, we were met by crystal-clear waters, vibrant vegetation, and a stunning variety of wildlife beyond what I could have imagined. That was nine years ago, and in the fifty-five expeditions I’ve since spent working as a photography guide for Quark Expeditions in the polar regions, the Falkland Islands remain one of my favorite photographic destinations of all time. 

Situated between South America and Antarctica, the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas), with its temperate climate, is home to a fascinating variety of bird species from both continents, plus a few endemic species. Getting there isn’t always easy – with hundreds of miles of open ocean in every direction, formidable winds can sometimes make it challenging to go ashore without guides experienced in polar expeditions – but it is precisely this wildness, this remoteness, that fosters such a remarkable wildlife habitat. What’s more, the islands’ sprawling landscapes are home to blooming flora, sandy beaches, and a dose of British culture that will appeal to landscape, wildlife and portrait photographers alike. Here's why I find the photographic opportunities here stand out amongst all the destinations we visit in the Southern Ocean. 

 

Color 

A pair of black-browed albatross at West Point Island.
 

Where Antarctica's pristine views offer shades of blue, white and grey, the Falkland Islands are an explosion of color. From the green hills, the Caribbean-blue water and bright white beaches, to the splashes of vivid plumage on many of the Falkland Islands' bird species, these islands are a rainbow compared to the rest of the Southern Ocean. Watch for the fields of yellow gorse on West Point Island, and try to frame your subjects with a contrasting color in the background. 

Tip: A polarizing filter can help to bring out the rich colors of the water on Falkland Islands beaches, and make blue skies appear even deeper than what meets the eye.

 

Contrasts 


King penguins wander the plains on Saunders Island.

Home to five species of penguins, a quaint British community, expansive pastoral landscapes, and dramatic cliffs, the Falkland Islands have a lot going on. Photographing these juxtapositions can create intriguing photos that challenge common perceptions about where certain animals can exist - and co-exist. Favorite examples of this include the king penguins that roam the green fields of Saunders Island, the wild-haired rockhopper penguins that nest among the black-browed albatross at West Point Island, and the chance to enjoy a classic British teatime at West Point after immersion in the albatross colony.


Quality of Light


Sunrise paints a gentoo penguin colony on Saunders Island.

 Traveling in the Southern Ocean in the austral summer is often a chance to experience the midnight sun – the further south you travel, the later the sun sets. Although this endless daylight is surreal to behold, it means that it can be hard to find the "magic hour" – that beautiful time around sunrise or sunset when the landscape is bathed in a rosy or golden glow. Of all the destinations we travel to in the Southern Ocean, the Falkland Islands are the furthest north, meaning our chances of encountering this lovely transitional light are much greater. 

Tip: Voyages on either end of the season – November or March – are more likely to catch the magic hour during excursion times. 

Diversity!

A long-tailed meadowlark stands out in a blooming field of gorse on West Point Island. Photograph by Quark Expeditions guide Jens Wikström.

Any keen birder will tell you how the Falkland Islands are a hotspot of species diversity. Because the islands' unique climate and location can support species from both South America and Antarctica, you will encounter vastly more different birds than any other destination in the Southern Ocean. As a photographer, that means that you can capture many different subjects all in one place – the best of both worlds. 

Tip: Tag along with the onboard ornithology expert to catch a glimpse of elusive species you might otherwise miss. They'll know exactly where to look!


Freedom to Spread Out

A Quark Expeditions passenger enjoys some solitude along the beach at Carcass Island.

Traveling in some of the most pristine wilderness areas on earth, it's important that your visit doesn’t have a detrimental impact on the environment. In places like Antarctica, this is achieved through careful regulations that often limit visitors' walking areas to a designated perimeter or path. In the Falkland Islands, too, we are cautious to avoid disturbing wildlife habitat— but the sites we visit, by comparison, are massive. For photographers or anyone seeking some quiet time, this means that there is much more space to spread out without disturbing the environment. If you're not sure, ask your guide where you can safely go to get the best shot – there should be plenty of space for everyone. 


Tip: While a tripod or monopod may be helpful for shooting stable video, shooting in low light, or supporting a gigantic lens, keep in mind that whatever you bring, you will need to carry yourself across these spacious landing sites. I generally leave my tripod on the ship except during sunrise or sunset.

Close Encounters

An encounter with a rockhopper penguin on Saunders Island.

The exposed outer islands of the Falkland Islands are home to remarkable wildlife populations that have never experienced land predators. Because the birds don't perceive humans as a threat, they will allow us to observe them at an exceptionally close range. Remember to respect regulations and never approach closer than five meters, but if you're quiet, calm and patient, some birds may come closer on their own to check you out. This can make for unparalleled photographic opportunities that reflect the emotional intensity of such an encounter. 


Tip: Choosing a lens is a personal choice, and the Falkland Islands provide excellent opportunities for both wide-angle and zoom lenses. If you can, bring both – but the zoom lens will probably serve you best for wildlife photography, especially for zooming in for extreme close-ups. 

 

Talk about detail! A close-up of a rockhopper penguin feeding its chick reveals a wildly textured tongue.

Quark Expeditions guides Yukie Hayashi and Jaymie McCauley revel in a beautiful sunrise on Saunders Island.


Ultimately, photography is a personal endeavor. What you seek, admire, and even consider a good photograph varies dramatically from person to person. However, I often find myself reflecting on the necessity of these differing voices to tell the full story of these beautiful and fragile places we visit. Whether you're a complete beginner or a seasoned professional photographer, I'd encourage you to visit the Falkland Islands and explore this visual wonderland. Remember – your images, too, have the power to increase global awareness about the value of these amazing natural environments.  

Plan your expedition to the Falkland Islands and beyond to experience the beauty of the polar regions for yourself. 

 

About the Author

Doug O'Neill

Even though I’m a seasoned traveler and travel writer, I was 27 years old when I hopped on an airplane for the first time. As one of eight children in a rural Ontario family, travel was limited to road trips to Wasaga Beach – in a very crowded Pontiac. But I eventually caught the travel bug and have now visited 40-plus countries. Landing at Quark Expeditions as Brand Copywriter seems like a natural step on a journey that started with a degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo followed by a Certificate in Magazine Journalism at Ryerson University, which ultimately led me to a print-and-digital publishing career at various Canadian magazines. One of my most fulfilling career experiences was launching a travel blog that I produced for several years at a national magazine. Hiking (or simply time spent in nature) tops my list of passions. In 2015 I completed the 800-km Camino de Santiago across Northern Spain. I’m a certified hike leader with Hike Ontario and I volunteer with the Bruce Trail Conservancy. I’ve co-authored a nature book, “110 Nature Hot Spots in Manitoba and Saskatchewan,” released by Firefly Books in April 2019.

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