Blog: Penguins on the Falkland Islands

Penguins on the Falkland Islands – Felix Leung

Felix Leung is currently taking part in the JR18002 cruise in the Southern Ocean as part of the ORCHESTRA project. Here he tells us about penguins…

When I was young, I was fascinated with the cartoon animation Pingu, which is about a family of penguins living in an igloo in Antarctica. Of course I know penguins don’t live in igloos but they do live in Antarctica. Since my expertise is in biology and ecology, it has always been on my bucket list to visit penguins in their natural habitat. I am very fortunate to be able to visit Falklands Islands where we set off for ORCHESTRA cruise JR18002 and see two species of penguins’ colonies.

On the second day of arrival in Stanley Falklands, four of us joined a local tour to travel to Volunteer point to see the king penguins  (Aptenodytes patagonicus). The tour guide is the third generation of islanders in Falklands Islands. He is a farmer but also guide tourists to the Volunteer Point.  The journey to Volunteer Point was quite bumpy, we had to cross private farmland and some very wet peatland, the journey took 3 hours.

On arrival we immediately saw three king penguins walking up the beach to their colony. They walk slowly and sometimes the sheep blocked their way and have to wait for the sheep to move. There are around 200 king penguins in the colony, most of them are currently chicks. The adult penguins make a loud noise and the chicks chirp like a songbirid. The chicks have brown plummage which makes them look like a giant kiwi. Their feathers are very thick to enable them to keep warm. Since it is almost summer here in the Falklands, some chicks have started to shed their brown plummage and reveal their white and black tuxedo-like feathers, which represent them finally reaching adulthood.

The chicks have no fear if people and were quite happy following us.

Unfortunately some chicks do not make it to adults as they are predated on by skua and giant petrels. Corpses are scattered around.

Not too far from the king penguin colony is the gentoo penguin colony. Unlike the king penguin they are smaller in size and lay eggs on a nest that they built themselves. They are cramped into a small place and sometimes they fight for territory.

On a different day we visited the gentoo penguin colony near Mare Harbour, Stanley, where the RRS James Clark Ross was docked. We walked from Mare Harbour to Falkland’s longest beach (Bertha’s beach) the penguins were not obvious until I found penguin footprints along the beach which we followed to their colony. The gentoo penguins walk much faster than the king penguin, and out of the water they can run over the sand dunes to the protection of their colony.

On a different day we visited the gentoo penguin colony near Mare Harbour, Stanley, where the RRS James Clark Ross was docked. We walked from Mare Harbour to Falkland’s longest beach (Bertha’s beach) the penguins were not obvious until I found penguin footprints along the beach which we followed to their colony. The gentoo penguins walk much faster than the king penguin, and out of the water they can run over the sand dunes to the protection of their colony.

Gentoo penguins crossing over the sand dunes to their colony on the hill.

Sheep were grazing on the grassland around the gentoo penguin colony and they seem to live in harmony.

Many penguins eat krill as their primary food source. However, there are increasing more krill fishing vessel fishing the krill unsustainably among the Antarctic waters. The krill fishing industry is growing as there are higher demand for supplements such as omega-3 that is extracted from krill. Climate change, habitat destruction and overfishing are the main threats penguins are facing today. There is a proposal to set up a large protected area in the Antarctic ocean however there are disagreements between different policy makers. In the meantime, we should put pressure on the government and educate the general public to protect our beautiful nature.

Felix Leung has recently finished his PhD at the University of Exeter and is moving to a post doctoral position in Hong Kong, Felix researches into the impacts of tropospheric ozone on crop production.

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