On Christmas day, 1997 I scouted the Falkland Island to possibly lead trips there sometime in the future. I was unprepared for what I saw. The Falklands were, without exaggeration, the most exciting location I've visited for wildlife photography since my first trips to Kenya! It is, again without qualification, one of the best sites for wildlife photography I've ever seen.
I think most people in the U.S. or Canada think of the Galapagos
Islands when they think of bird photography outside of North America.
I know I always did. After my first days in the Falklands, I considered
calling the Islands the 'Galapagos of the South Atlantic' for
my brochure, but in truth that wouldn't have done these islands
justice. If you've been to the Galapagos, you know what's there
(I'll give a complete comparison later), and using this popular,
over-shot destination as my reference I was ecstatic over the
potential in the Falklands.
On that trip I used a 600mm three times in two weeks! And I really only 'needed' it once, and only used it the other times early in the trip because I brought it along. My best work was with a 20-35mm wide-angle! Imagine - Having a Falklands skua tugging at your pants legs, or a Striated Caracara poking away at your backpack, or a tussock bird hopping onto your hand to look for whatever tussock birds look for.
The birds of the Falklands are incredibly tame, and unlike the Galapagos, visitors are not restricted to particular pathways, or to certain times. You're free to shoot from sunrise to sunset, virtually wherever you wish, with the obvious limitation that one does not step into the middle of a penguin rookery, of course. But shooting from the edges of a colony, ten or at the most twenty yards away, poses no problem, as Gentoos, Kings, and Rockhopper penguins will walk within feet of you. Gentoos are actually curious, and almost every time I worked these birds I've had groups waddle up to within ten feet of me to investigate!
But there is more to the Falklands than just penguins. Much more. As the cover of this brochure indicates, there are a variety of other birds, as well as sea lions and elephant seals, to film. And all of these birds and animals are tame, with the exception of the sea lions. I used a 300mm, sometimes with a 1.4X, for every subject, unless I was shooting with a wide-angle. For elephant seals, I used every lens, from 20-35 to 300mm, as I was within ten feet (I could have touched seals if I wished) of many relaxed seals, and about thirty feet from seals that would be sparring. Without much trouble I made frame-filling shots of caracaras, hawks, vultures, gulls, albatross, night herons, geese, and elephant seals.
For many people an awareness of the Falklands stems from a vague memory of the war in 1982. In the spring of that year, Argentina invaded the Falklands, claiming it was their territory. This annoyed the British, and they defended the islands, and within months won back the islands.
The Argentines seeded areas around the city of Stanley with
land mines, and I'm sure potential tourists, aware of this, have
given this destination second thoughts because of the mines. THESE
ARE NOT A CONCERN. The mines were placed in particular areas,
and those sites have been fenced off, and are clearly marked,
and, are no where near any tourist destination.
Accommodations and Food
There are approximately 2,500 residents in the entire Falkland Islands archipelago, an area that's roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. By the way, the military presence accounts for another 2,000, but they rotate on tours of duty usually lasting less than six months.
The hotels in the city of Stanley, and Sea Lion Lodge on Sea Lion Island, are comparable to facilities found at any tourist destination world-wide. At Sea Lion, however, the lodge has fixed meal hours. They do not offer meals at your convenience as a restautant does. Breakfast is at 8AM, dinner is at 7PM, and don't be late! This timing is a bit of a pain, to be honest, as the light at a rockhopper or king cormorant colony can still be quite nice at 7PM, but to walk back from the colony one must leave no later than 6PM. Of course, there are things that can be shot on the hike back to the lodge, and there's still about an hour's light remaining after dinner. Likewise for breakfast ... if you choose, there's time before breakfast to visit the nearby gentoo penguins, although if it is cloudy I found it easier to just relax and get into my field clothes after breakfast.On sunny mornings, the hike to the gentoos or elephant seals is quite worthwhile.
Lunch at Sea Lion Island Lodge is either a sit-down or a picnic lunch. We typically arrange a picnic lunchso once you're out, you can be shooting until dinner. Or, if you wish, a picnic dinner can be prepared for you, and you can skip dinner.
The facilities at Carcass Island include separate cottages and rooms (as of 2/20/02), with the owner of the settlement providing the meals. Rob McGill is known throughout the islands as the perfect host, and everyone that's visited Carcass absolutely love his hospitality. By 2003 there may be new accommodations built -- we'll keep registrants posted.
At Saunders Island, we'll be using the self-catering cottage. Our group will occupy one of the two guest houses, with two to a room in most cases, and where we'll be required to cook our own meals. Food and the accommodations are rather modest and basic, but as the owners rightly say, you're coming here for the red-backed hawks, the black-browed albatross colonies, the rockhoppers, Magellenic, and gentoo penguins, and the king cormorants, not for a fancy place to stay! We'll be driven to our shooting sites each day (and collected later, at a time of our choosing), again carrying a picnic lunch that we'll prepare ourselves.
Volunteer Point is a day trip based from Stanley. Volunteer point has the largest rookery of King Penguins in the Falklands -- over 800 pairs of birds! One day is sufficient to get great shots of the Kings, provided the weather cooperates, but we're planning on two. It'd be a pitty to miss out on excellent shooting of this, the second largest species of penguin, due to inclement weather. Plus, in doing two shoots, you'll have a much better chance of seeing chicks, or of documenting their growth, in case the King's eggs hadn't hatched by the time of your first visit to this rookery.
The Falklands are a great destination, but the facilities are, in many ways, undeveloped. Consider the premiere tourist lodge -- Sea Lion Lodge-- can only host 18 people! When you weigh the options -- better facilities, and more tourists, or adequate facilities, and fewer tourists, I'll take the latter every time.
I've met some folks who have been on other photo tours who
have complained about some of the facilities in the Falklands,
but I honestly don't know how up-front and honest the brochures
were. Did they paint an unrealistic picture? I don't know. I can
tell you that the facilities are OK at every location, and are
great at most, but the experience is certainly different than
being at a tourist lodge in Kenya or on a yacht in the Galapagos.
But do you need that? I used to camp, and solid walls, a bed,
and a dry roof overhead is all I need, and you'll get that at
even the most remote facility in the Falklands.
If you like British-style cuisine, you'll be right at home in the Falklands. In the city of Stanley virtually any type of meal is available (although with a total population of 2,500 on the entire archipelago you won't see a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut). At Sea Lion Lodge, there is one set menu, which is quite good, which might consist of steak, chicken, fish, or a Mexican dish. At Carcass the menu will be similar as Rob McGill cooks our meals. And at Saunders we'll be self-catering. Mary will probably be responsible for the menu, and she always does a great job.
Physical Activity - Physical Requirements
Although the Falklands are our number ONE bird photography destination, we feel it is not for everyone. Why not?
Because it requires walking, and self-direction and motivation. Unlike a Kenya photo safari, where participants are in vehicles and driven to virtually every subject, and who are usually in the company of Mary or Joe and always with a Kenya guide, the Falklands are different. While LandRovers are used to take our participants to shooting locations, the shoots, themselves, are done outside the vehicle. In other words, you are driven to a spot, and then you walk to your subject. In some cases, the walks are quite short, but in others, you may walk nearly a mile to a colony or nest site.
On Sea Lion Island this is especially true. Although transport is frequently available each morning (after breakfast and depending upon the FIGAS planes schedule), the transport is usually just one-way. Tourists are expected to walk back to the lodge at their convenience. Here's how this normally works: After breakfast, the manager asks who needs a lilft. If you wish to be driven someplace, it's done, based upon the manager/driver's schedule. Since Sea Lion Island is only 5 miles long, and the lodge is located almost dead-center, most walks cannot be further than 2.5 miles. In reality, all the good shooting is generally within 1 mile to the East of the lodge, and maybe 2 miles to the West, so distances are far shorter than what the island's length would indicate. Most folks carry a packed lunch (sandwiches, drinks, etc) with them, and often make an entire day of the walk back. With the variety of subject matter available, that is easy to do.
However, if you are not accustomed to walking, or if you are accustomed to carrying a LowePro Super Trekker packed with 60 pounds of gear and used to just shooting from within 50 feet of your car, then Sea Lion's protocol may not be for you. Mary and I try to prep people before the trip for what gear they should bring, but even then, we'll often have someone who insists on carryimg two big lenses, two camera bodies, and perhaps another camera of a different format, making their pack exceedingly heavy. Believe me, you don't need all that gear!
Further, the beauty of the Falklands is the opportunity a photographer has to work at his or her own pace, shooting whatever they wish to film. On Sea Lion in particular, but generally throughout the trip, we do not shoot as a group. Instead, photographers either shoot individually or in small groups. Sometimes, when something great is discovered, all, or almost all of the group gather, but it is just as common to work alone for hours. In this way, if you would like to spend an entire morning with a skua family, or spend nearly an entire day waiting for the peregrines to feed, or if you'd rather spend only a few minutes with each subject and want maximum diversity (NOT RECOMMENDED -- you'll get the diversity anyway!!!), you are free to do so.
Mary and I prep folks on where to go, what to shoot, and what priorities they should have at each of our different locations, and most photographers enjoy the freedom they have in their personal shooting. But if you need to be led to each subject, and told what to do, and how long to do it, then the Falklands may not be for you. Conversely, if you want the freedom to 'do your thing,' to work a subject as long as you'd like, picking your perspectives, working distances, and time of day, then nothing is better than the Falklands.
So, to sum up, expect to walk at least two miles a day on Sea Lion Island, and maybe as many as four if you insist on running all over the place each day. Realistically I'd expect someone to do three miles a day, and less than this if you 'work' any given area thoroughly. Walking distances are generally less at the other islands, but again, if someone wishes to photograph at several different locations in one day they'll put in extra mileage. Therefore, if you are not accustomed to hiking, or carrying a pack, either get into shape to be able to walk three miles a day; prep yourself for working short distance areas; or don't attempt to do the Falklands.
For the most part, the walking is easy. Sea Lion is virtually flat. Carcass has one long, perhap 1/2 mile walk that involves several small rises (less than 100 feet for the biggest), and Saunders involves no hills if one stays on the beach or at the level where one is dropped off for shooting. Really, it is not a big deal, but after doing 6 photo tours here, and having 2 or 3 people comment upon the physical requirements (out of 36-40 people), I wanted to make sure everyone understands how a shoot goes.
(Subject to flight times from Miami to Santiago, Chile) Itinerary may also change as to exact sequence of island visits, depending upon their availability and bookings. For example, we may leave Stanley for Sea Lion Island, NOT Saunders or to Carcass, if flights and bookings dictate. Ultimately, the rotation for the visits won't matter, and the exact itinerary is dictated by the Falkland Islands Goverment Air Service (FIGAS), and not by us. The following itinerary is also based upon our typical two week photo tour, and not the special three week trip currently contemplated. As of this writing there is only one flight a week serving the Falklands, but there is hopes that a second flight may operate mid-week, so this itinerary is based upon a Stanley Saturday arrival/departure.
Day 1, Thursday. Depart Miami for late PM flight to Santiago, Chile.
Day 2, Friday. Arrive Santiago. There is only one flight to the Falklands each week, on Saturdays. It's too risky to arrive on the morning of that flight! It's far safer to stay in Chile overnight to catch that plane! This also gives you a chance to relax, stretch, get some rest, and be ready for the exciting two weeks ahead! Dinner included.
Day 3, Saturday. Flight from Chile to Stanley, following the spine of the Andies south to Punta Arenas, before continuing east to the Islands, where we arrive sometime after 3:30PM. You may have time to visit the town of Stanley, or to photograph flightless steamer ducks, skuas, Southern giant petrels, and black-crowned night herons along the nearby bay, within easy reach of our hotel. Most people just relax after the day of flying.
Day 4, Sunday. Morning departure to Volunteer Point. Volunteer Point has a large colony of king penguins, three colonies of gentoo penguins, and more.
Day 5, Monday. Flight to Sea Lion Island We'll have an introductory landrover excursion, which will point out the major sites and shooting opportunities. Additionally we will provide an accurate map to point you to all of the best sites to maximize your shooting for each subject..
Day 6-8, Tuesday-Thursday. Sea Lion Island. Many people say you could spend all your time in the Falklands here, and such an itinerary, though missing some great shooting elsewhere, would still be awfully good. SLI has several gentoo penguin colonies, a good mixed colony of king cormorants and rockhopper penguins, plenty of Magellenic penguins (but they are everywhere!), one or two king penguins (displaced birds, no doubt), as well as the following:
Falkland skuas, Cassin's falcon (a peregrine subspecies), turkey vultures, striated caracara, short-eared owl, kelp gull, dolphin gull, South American terns, white tufted grebes, silvery grebes, Southern giant petrel, flightless steamer duck, kelp goose, upland goose, yellow-billed teal, Chiloe widgeon, Patagonian crested duck, black oystercatcher, Magellenic oystercatcher, two-banded plover, Falkland siskins, Falkland thrush, tussock bird, black-throated ground finch, rock cormorant, king cormorant, Falkland snipe, rufous-chested dotterel, sanderling, dark-faced ground tyrant, Southern house wren, grass wren, and long-tailed meadowlark, and ruddy-headed goose. As well as Southern elephant seals and Southern sea lions.
As you can see, Sea Lion has virtually everything, with the exception of Black-browed albatrosses on land (although they are often seen at a distance from the shore!). All of these birds and seals are within walking distance of the lodge. It's a great locale, and probably the most 'touristy' in terms of the standard accommodations one expects at a tourist facility. The foods good, too!
Now, if you're still with me, compare the above selection with what one can expect in the Galapagos Islands: 3 boobies, 1 rare penguin, 1 hawk, 1 mockingbird, several herons, shorebirds, and pelicans, and several finches -- less than thirty species in total, plus 4 reptiles, and some sea lions. Plus, the inconvenience of being on a boat, the limitation on hours you're shooting, the restriction on the use of flash, and the fact that you must remain on trails! See what I mean?
This is the island where you will do the most walking, as there are subjects literally in all directions from the lodge. Mary and Joe will assist people in planning their day's shooting, and we recommend that you limit yourself to a particular part of the island each day.
Day 9. Fly from Sea Lion Island to Saunders Island. Saunders has two large black-browed albatross colonies, several rock hopper colonies, and a king cormorant colony and from the self-catering settlement we'll be within an hour's drive of either site. Weather permitting, we'll be visiting all of these colonies. At one of these sites there are several gentoo penguin colonies, as well as a few nesting king penguins, and a major beach-landing area for rock-hoppers and Magellanic penguins. For the last four years, a chinstrap penguin has lived amongst these gentoos. We may also have a chance to film a red-backed hawk that usually nests within a short drive of the settlement.
Day 10-11. Saunders Island. Weather permitting, each day we'll visit one of the albatross and rock-hopper nesting colonies. Depending upon the day, you'll also have a chance to shoot the other species described above. During our stay, we'll be transported to our various shooting locations by our host and hostess, Dave and Susan Pole-Evans, the friendly and accommodating owners of this incredible island.
Days 12. Fly from Saunders to Carcass Island. Saunders Island and flight to Carcass Island. Carcass's little settlement is probably the most fondly remembered location of any site in the Falklands. People love the ambiance and the owner. There is a good gentoo penguin colony within walking distance of the settlement, and in the trees here (virtually the only ones you'll find in the Falklands!) a huge colony of Falkland black-crowned night herons roost and nest. These birds are very tame and accessible, especially at the waterfront at low tide. There's also a tern colony (some years), a spectacular king cormorant colony, elephant seals, and large tracts of tussock grass that harbor short-eared owls, turkey vultures, striated caracaras, and a variety of passerine birds. In fact, most shooters elect to shoot the song birds here -- it's the best location in the islands for shooting the colorful meadowlarks, finches, siskins, and thrushes! There is an active and accessible striated caracara nest and occasionally an active red-backed hawk nest for great shooting.
Days13-14. Carcass Island. On one (or two, if demand warrants it) we'll head out to the most spectacular King cormorant colony of any of these islands (about 1/3-1/2 mile distance), where great flight shots, nesting shots, and portraits are easy to make. Around the settlement you'll have plenty of time to work on the numerous striated caracaras, black-crowned night herons, songbirds, oystercatchers, and ducks that are common here. If you're going to shoot a short-eared owl in the Falklands, it will probably be here! The beauty of Carcass is that so much of the shooting is closeby, and if our itinerary has this island last, it affords a more leasurely wind-down after the preceeding more physical days. If it is first, Carcass can be considered a great 'conditioning' island where you can begin to work out your shooting arrangements, in terms of what you want to bring afield with you and what you'll need to shoot. Either way, it is a great place to start, or end, a visit!
Day 15. Carcass Island to Stanley. Depending upon our FIGAS flight, we'll leave sometime that morning for our return to Stanley. Flight times vary, ranging from 9AM to 1PM, and depend upon the wind, too. By having a full day to 'escape' from the outlying islands, we'll have a buffer that will provide us with plenty of time to make our international connections on day 16. Again, depending upon the flight schedule, you may have time in the morning (certainly before the 8AM breakfast) to photograph. Generally, there is plenty of time that afternoon to shop in Stanley, and, after 5PM, to photograph giant petrels flying within frame-filling range of flying Giant Petrels along the wharf. Overnight, Stanley.
Day 16 . We'll return to Volunteer Point for a final penguin shoot -- the Kings! This will provide participants with the chance to fine-tune their shooting (remember, your first day of shooting was here, and chances are you'll be a little less excited and more discriminating on your second round!). Returning to Volunteer Point will also give us two chances of capturing the King's chicks on film (they are late hatchers -- often hatching about the time other penguin species are fledged! PLEASE NOTE: If we have exceptional weather on Day 4, and have shot the King penguins to everyone's satisfaction, then we have the option of traveling to another shooting location on the East Island for rockhopper penguins, Southern sea lions, red-backed hawks, and possible Macaroni penguins. We leave this day 'open,' based upon our success at Volunteer Point. Frequently we'll arrive back in Stanley while there is still enough light for anyone who wishes to film the giant petrels flying along the wharf.
Day 17. Stanley. We'll have the morning to spend in Stanley, to repack, or shop (this will be your only chance to do so!), or perhaps just to spend time along the bay front where skuas, giant petrels, turkey vultures, steamer ducks, and Southern sea lions are often seen. We'll leave our hotel around nood for our flight to Chile (generally leaving between 3Pm and 5PM), and arrive in Santiago between 11PM-12:30AM that evening.
Day 18. We'll have a final day in Santiago before departing for our flight back to home at approximately 10PM or so. At this time there are direct flights to Miami, Dallas, and Los Angeles.
Day 19. Arrival home. Get the film boxed and Fed-Ex-ed and start unwinding!
The actual day-to-day schedule is subject to change, ie the schedule may be rearranged, because of intra-island scheduling conflicts. However, the length of time* and the islands visited will not change, just their order of visitation. *=We allocate 2.5 days at Saunders and Carcass to allow for weather, not only while you are on the islands but also to allow sufficient time on each island if weather grounds a FIGAS flight. In 7 trips this has only happened once (in 2002, when we were 'grounded' on Sea Lion Island and extra day, giving us 1.5 days on Saunders. This is still sufficient time to do either Carcass or Saunders if the weather cooperates. However, please be aware that weather can shorten or lengthen one's visit to an island as FIGAS needs safe weather conditions to travel.
My wife Mary Ann and I strive to provide the most comfortable and thorough tour you will experience. Both Mary and I are photographers, and I'd hope you've seen our credits. These included National Geographic, National Wildlife, Ranger Rick, Natural History, Living Bird, Birder's World, and most nature/wildlife calendars.
In 1994 Mary Ann won two first place awards in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, in Endangered Species and in Bird Behavior. In 2000 she won 1st place in the Nature's Best Photo Contest in the Animal Antics/Pro Division with a shot of two rockhopper penguins from Saunders Island. She also won a highly commended in the BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition with an image of a "surfing gentoo" made at Sea Lion Island. Mary has written twenty-nine children's books, including Leopards, Grizzly Bears, Woodpeckers, Flying Squirrels, Sunflowers, Cobras, Jupiter, Boas, Garter Snakes, Pythons, Rattlesnakes, Ducks, Chickens, Horses, and Cows, and an adult coffee table book, Out of the Past, Amish Tradition and Faith.
I've written several how-to wildlife photography books -- A Practical Guide to Photographing American Wildlife, The Wildllife Photographer's Field Manual, The Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography, and Designing Wildlife Photographs. In 1996 Amphoto published Photographing on Safari, A Field Guide to Photographing in East Africa, and in the fall of 1998 Amphoto published The New Complete Guide to Wildlife Photography.
In October, 1999 our first joint effort, The Wildlife of Africa, will be published by a division of Todtri.
It is entirely possible that we could lose one day at a particular island because the air service cannot fly. It's for this reason that we've scheduled several days at each location, guaranteeing as best we can, that we'll shoot all of the subjects available at each location. Weather indeed can be a problem -- on any given day you may have sun, wind, rain, and snow in a period of hours! This makes for great shooting, but the potential for a wash-out at any site is there.
FIGAS also severely restricts the amount of free luggage one can carry, and it's almost a guarantee that you will exceed that weight. FIGAS permits 14 KG of free luggage -- that's 30 pounds, and includes camera gear, clothing, boots, etc. Excess weight is billed at .60 pound per kilo. On most of my trips I was over by about thirty pounds, and was billed approximately $30 for this. Mary is generally a bit less.
You will be responsible for any excess baggage charges. Also, you must be aware that although FIGAS will try to, and usually does, deliver excess baggage to their destinations, it is possible that items will not be on your flight, or may not arrive on the same day. We'll provide extremely thorough and complete instructions regarding clothing, gear needed, and packing tips, so that you'll have your basic 'kit' and camera gear, in the event this happens.
Any Lan Chile delays or FIGAS delays that may result in extra charges not expressly already described or covered for the participants in terms of accommodations, food, excursions, or other items not described in this brochure, are the responsibility of the participant. Neither our ground operator, Stanley Services, nor McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc. can be held responsible under any circumstances for these change or charges. It is the responsibility of the participant to arrange his or her schedule to accommodate for the flight schedule of Lan Chile and their one flight per week to the Falklands. McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc. nor its agents are responsible for any extra charges incurred by participants who miss either their US flight to Chile or their flight to the Falklands. Any extra charges will be charged to the participant. FIS and McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc. strongly recommend that participants take out travel or holiday insurance to safeguard against any such delays. A copy of the FIS instruction sheet will be forwarded to all participants.
Any Lan Chile delays or FIGAS delays, for which our ground operator, Stanley Services, and McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc. cannot be held responsible under any circumstances for changes that may result due to delays or cancellations or resulting in extra charges not expressly already described or covered for the participants in terms of accommodations, food, excursions, or extra. Any extra charges will be charged to the participant. FIS and McDonald Wildlife Photography, Inc. strongly recommend that participants take out travel or holiday insurance to safeguard against any such delays. A copy of the FIS instruction sheet will be forwarded to all participants. It is strongly suggested that participants enroll in Med-Jet, an air evacuation service, should there be any health concerns. Details of Med-Jet will be forwarded to all registered participants.
In most cases, SINGLE ROOMS are not an option, they are unavailable. Tour pricing is based upon double occupancy, and trip availability is subject to this limitation of single rooms.
OVERBOOKINGS: Because space is limited, occasionally one or more of the lodges overbooks, and without confirmation or permission place three people in one large room. One year, on one trip this happened to our group on two of our four nights at Sea Lion Island, and there was no recourse, nor refund, for the inconvenience. It could happen again.
Transportation/transfer charges from Santiago to the airport and back are included; departure taxes from the Falkland Islands, the US, or from Chile are not included.
Meals and non-alcoholic drinks are included throughout the tour.