My favourite part of visiting the Falklands? That’s easy. Without a doubt, it was the Falkland Islands penguins.
I spent hours hanging out on the beach and the grassy banks with the penguins of the Falkland Islands and it was the most memorable aspect of my trip. Sure, there were other highlights such as watching dolphins playing in the bays, or spotting the elusive reindeer on Weddell Island. As well as some lowlights like getting chased by a giant elephant seal (luckily his heart wasn’t really in it, and after a few half-hearted lurches my way, he went back to his business), but I digress.
So, what makes the Falkland Islands the best place to see penguins in the wild? The Falklands are home to more penguins than people, and their habitat is amazingly accessible. It’s also not overrun with tourists, meaning magical experiences are yours alone to have.
Ready to meet the penguins of the Falkland Islands? Let’s dive right in.
Falkland Islands Penguins
There are five species of penguins in the Falkland Islands. Rockhopper penguins have the highest numbers, followed by Gentoo and Magellanic, and then King penguins. Macaroni penguins are more elusive – you’ll have to work harder to see one of these Rockhopper lookalikes mingling discreetly among their yellow-feathered buddies.
Rockhopper penguins defy the clumsiness that penguins are renowned for. Against the odds, they hoist their small round frame up the steepest of cliff faces. Deftly hopping from one rock to another on two pink feet, they scale unforgiving jarred walls of rock to perch on scenic promontories.
The smallest of the Falkland Islands penguins, Rockhoppers grow to around 60cm. Their telltale crest of spiky yellow feathers extends out over beady red eyes in a way that makes them look curiously coiffed (and a little bad-tempered!)
Where to find Rockhopper penguins in the Falklands
As of 2010, there were a whopping 320,000 pairs of breeding Rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands. But despite their high numbers, their colonies are primarily clustered around the uninhabited Beauchêne and Jason Islands. They can be found on other, more accessible islands though. I saw Rockhopper penguins perched on cliff faces on Pebble Island and Sea Lion Island.
When to see Rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands
Rockhopper penguins are migratory birds. They return to the Falklands Islands in early October to breed and leave again by the end of April.
The Falkland Islands are home to the largest population of Gentoo penguins in the world. So it’s not surprising they have become somewhat of a mascot to the Falkland Islands.
Gentoo Penguins are a fairly large penguin, coming in at around 75-80cms. They’re also an outgoing bunch! You’ll often find them surfing the waves (they’re very skilled and fast swimmers), before awkwardly ‘landing’ back on shore. Or waddling up & down the barren track that leads to their colonies inland – commonly referred to as a penguin highway.
Gentoo penguins are distinguishable by the white bar that extends from the top of one eye to the other, and their bright orange bills.
Where to find Gentoo penguins in the Falklands
With so many Gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands, their habitat is far-reaching. Colonies can be found on both East and West Falkland, along with 17 of the outer islands. I saw Gentoo penguins while visiting Carcass, Pebble, Weddel, and Sea Lion Islands, as well as near the capital town of Stanley at Gypsy Cove.
When to see Gentoo penguins in the Falkland Islands
Gentoo’s can be found in the Falklands all year round. The best time to see their chicks is from when they hatch mid-November, through to February.
Although there are a higher number of Rockhopper penguins than Magellanic penguins in the Falkland Islands, the Magellanic is seemingly the most prolific. The islands’ peaty soil is punctuated with their deep burrows.
These medium-sized penguins grow up to 76 cm tall. They are shy in nature, but if you keep your distance, some will happily pose at the entrance to their burrows, ready to scamper back inside at the first sign of danger.
Magellanic penguins (also known as Jackass penguins) are entirely black and white. The only exception being that young birds have a mottled pink pattern on their feet. Their distinctive circular markings on their faces and bodies make them easy to pick out at a distance.
Where to find Magellanic penguins in the Falkland Islands
Magellanic penguins can be found throughout the Falkland Islands. They typically dig their burrows around the coastlines of the islands, preferring areas heavy in tussock. I spotted them in some unlikely places too – such as right next to the airstrip at Port Edgar!
When to see Magellanic penguins in the Falkland Islands
Magellanic penguins return to the Falklands in the summer months to breed. They start arriving in early September and return to the same burrow they left the year before. The burrows are deserted again by the end of April.
The biggest of the Falkland Islands penguins, King penguins are also the most striking to look at! Their crowded colony is a hive of activity, as grown King penguins make their way through the throngs of fluffy brown chicks.
King Penguins are among the largest in the world. Only the Antartic emperor penguin is taller. King penguins can grow up to a metre tall and as they stand proudly with their bills held high, they often appear larger.
Their black heads are highlighted with a bright orange ‘cuff’ that extends from their collar up around the back of the head in a circular shape. The orange theme is continued in the lower half of their bills and at the top of their chest where the orange becomes yellow as fans out like an upside down sunrise. The rest of their bodies are covered in a silver grey plumage, while their bellies are the colour of snow.
Where to find King Penguins in the Falkland Islands
The King penguin population of the Falkland Islands is concentrated at Volunteer Point, although there have been sightings on other islands. At just over 2 hour’s drive from Stanley, it’s the world’s most accessible King penguin colony. But it’s not a drive for the faint hearted! Volunteer Point is located on a privately owned farm in the Northeast of East Falkland. There are no roads to reach the point, just uneven, soft, and often sodden soil. A four-wheel drive vehicle is a must, and hiring a local driver is highly recommended!
When to see King penguins in the Falkland Islands
As the breeding cycle of the King penguin takes over a year, there are always penguins at Volunteer Point. But over the winter months, chicks are largely left to themselves with their parents only returning sporadically to feed them. Chicks start hatching late January and don’t go to sea until they have their adult feathers – around 10-11 months later.
There are only around 24 pairs of Macaroni penguins in the Falkland Islands, with the majority of the penguins preferring the shores of South Georgia to breed.
Macaroni penguins look very similar to Rockhopper penguins. They are slightly larger and their distinctive orange head feathers are darker and more vibrant than those found on the Rockhopper penguins. The closely related birds do like each other’s company though – going so far as breeding together occasionally, creating a hybrid chick!
Macaroni penguins grow to around 69 cm. They are black and white with pink feet and an orange-red bill. Like the Rockhopper, they scale the rocky cliffs of the Falkland Islands with ease.
Where to find Macaroni penguins in the Falkland Islands
Macaroni penguins can be found among the Rockhopper colonies. But with such small numbers in the Falklands, it can be hard to spot them among the throngs! With a little help, I was able to see two Macaroni penguins during my travels – one in Sea Lion Island and the other on Pebble Island.
When to see Macaroni penguins in the Falkland Islands
They share another similarity with Rockhopper penguins – their breeding patterns. Macaroni penguins return to the Falklands in October and after rearing their young, return to sea in April.
Final thoughts on visiting the Falklands Islands Penguins
Whether you’re a wildlife fanatic, a keen birder, or an avid photographer – the Falkland Islands Penguins are well worth journeying to this remote and wild land for. The Falkland Islands are truly the best place to see penguins in their natural habitat. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life getting up close to the penguins of the Falkland Islands, and I know it will be for you too!