It’s a lot smellier than I had imagined and my five-year old daughters agree. “What stinks?” one of them shrieks while covering her nose and mouth with her mittens. The pungent odor of guano (aka: penguin poop) is nauseating but once I see the tuxedo-clad birds, I forget all about the smell and realize why I booked a penguin tour.
It’s hard not to laugh as they squawk loudly, sounding a lot like honking Canadian geese, and waddle about while they chase and peck at each other.
The Falkland Islands are home to one million nesting penguins during the summer (North America’s winter). Species such as King, Magellanic, Rockhopper and Gentoo are the types featured on excursions offered by cruise lines and independent tour operators. And, with the latest barrage of penguin movies, including March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, and Mr. Popper’s Penguins, this unique bird has become increasingly popular.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The penguin tours in the Falkland Islands offer opportunities to get close to penguins living in their natural habitat.
- You can never have enough photos of penguins.
- Good for penguin-lovers and families, including those with small children.
What to Expect on a Penguin Tour
As a mom with small children, my criteria for a penguin tour must include balancing the cuteness factor of the penguins versus the whining factor of my kids. The tour to Volunteer Point to see the King Penguins is about seven hours, which has a high whine factor. The excursion to the Rockhopper penguin colony to see penguins with beady red eyes has a low cute factor. That makes my choice: Gentoo penguins at Bluff Cove Lagoon.
The Bluff Cove Lagoon Tour starts with a half hour mini-bus ride from the port of Stanley along a paved road. We arrive at a gravel parking lot in the middle of what seems like nowhere, to transfer into four-wheel drive vehicles owned and driven by local residents who double as guides. From there, the route continues off the pavement and into a field with no visibly marked roads, yet the experienced drivers know exactly where they are going.
In low gear, the Land Rover navigates through the rugged terrain, climbing boulders, negotiating peat moss bogs, and crossing make-shift bridges. Although seat belts assure that we don’t hit our head on the truck’s roof, I still tightly hold the “holy crap” bar above my window. The guide explains to us that during the Falklands War much of this area was covered in land mines. He half jokes about wandering cows experiencing an accidental death.
The Bluff Cove Penguin Rookery
We arrive at the rookery full of anticipation of interacting with the Gentoo penguins for a full hour. Thankfully, we are dressed warmly, because the wind gusts to about 40 miles per hour and the temperature is biting cold. Unfortunately, my kids have a change of heart and decide that they’d rather sit inside the heated Sea Cabbage Cafe, a tea house in a trailer tucked below the bluff.
Here, local ladies provide complimentary pastries, hot chocolate and coloring pages while my kids watch the penguins waddle on the beach from behind windows. The ladies’ hospitality coupled with my giddiness allow me to leave my children behind so I can get closer to the penguins.
Most of the penguins seem to be content lying on their bellies in the grass surrounded by sprays of white effluent. A few rogue penguins frolic and fish by the water’s edge. A ranger is present to make sure guests follow the Countryside Code, a set of rules that prohibit getting too close to the birds.
With my camera in one hand and the other preventing my ponytail from whipping across my face, I snap dozens of photos trying to capture the comical behavior of the penguins. I try to imagine what they are saying as they appear to yell at each other on the beach.
One irate penguin stretches its (I don’t want to jump to conclusions about gender) wings stiffly behind itself, braying loudly like a donkey to another penguin, “Don’t walk away when I’m talking to you!”
This quickly leads to a chase. One is clearly upset with the other as they begin to run after each other in full waddle mode. The same noisy penguin lets out another loud honk, “You stole my fish!”
Even with the cold, whipping wind, I could stand out here for hours longer watching these cute creatures. I don’t even notice the smell any more. Unfortunately, the penguin portion of the tour is over. The guide starts to round up the visitors to get back in the Land Rovers and I need to collect my kids. Good-bye penguins.
- The weather in the Falkland Islands is unpredictable. Dress in warm layers including rain gear and fleece. You may also need a hat and gloves. Wear hiking boots or other closed-toe rubber soled shoes. Expect to step in mud (or worse).
- On the other hand, when the sun comes out, it can be intense. Bring sun protection, too.
- Many of the tours include an extremely bumpy 4×4 drive to get to the penguin rookery. These tours may not be suitable for pregnant women or passengers with back, neck or mobility conditions.
- The best time to see the penguins is after November, once the babies are hatched.
- Abide by the Falklands’ Countryside Code or risk being fined up to 3,000 British Pounds. This means no picking flowers, don’t feed the penguins, and always give the penguins the right of way.