Penguins – to the Falklands

The Falkland islands have been featured in a few posts as have the Falkland Island penguins. There are lots of Rockhoppers, Gentoos, Magellanic, and King Penguins on these rather remote and unsettled islands. The Falklands consist of 780 islands, islets, and protruding rocks; only two of the islands (East and west Falkland) are of any size at all. Size enough for humans to live and prosper that is – there are many that are excellent for sea birds, whether they fly or swim. The islands if all lumped together are about half the size of New Hampshire; maybe three Rhode Islands. Almost 50 island groups would fit in Kenya and about 41 Falklands would snuggle within Spains border.

Please treat all the images as copyrighted and ask permission to reproduce them. Thank you. DEClapp

The Falkland Islands are a rather remote and rugged group of 780 islands, islets, and above sea level rocks totaling about 4700 square miles. This is about half the size of New Hampshire and would fit about 53 times within the boundaries of France. There are only two large islands (East Falkland and West Falkland). The capital is the town of Stanley, where about two-thirds of the 3400 residents live, and is situated on the easterly point of East Falkland. The islands are dependent on fishing and tourism and a bit on a declining wool industry. Perhaps, surprisingly the two largest economic/trade partners are Spain and Namibia.

In the late 1980s they started selling fishing licenses to foreign countries and that brings in a large portion of the country’s annual income covering the cost of health care and other governmental responsibilities. Most of the industrial fishing in the area is for ilex squid as they migrate southward past the islands. The Argentinians have started fishing heavily just north of the Falkland waters and the jousting for rights and ownership is festering again. The economic value of the squid is significant to both or either country. The market value of the catch is about 50 million and the license fees are about 40 million. We may see more tension developing between Argentina and Britain due to these impending “squid wars”. (There are also reports that say that illegal fishing, mostly in Argentine waters, (unlicensed and non-Argentinian) takes an estimated 300,000 tons of squid annually). The squid population cannot maintain under this unregulated competitive siege.

The highest elevation on any of the Falkland Islands is about 2300 feet above sea level; but when you are as far south as the Falklands (51º-53º south latitude) there is little chance for forest type of vegetation. As a matter of fact the only treed areas are around the buildings that have been built in gullies and creases in a rather heath-like landscape. There are many harbors along the coastline and also many quartz beaches with white sand. A soil cross section will go down from peat on the top to clay and then rock. It is a poorly drained region and the ground is often thoroughly waterlogged. The peat has been harvested for fuel throughout the time of settlement down there.

The islands are closest to the South American continent at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. Though the islands are pretty much due east of the spot where Argentina and Chile come together the Argentinians have always laid claim to the Malvinas Islands. In 1982 the British and Argentinians came to blows over the dominion of these islands. The British retained their oversight after a brief but focused “war”. There are currently less that 3,500 people on the islands and about two-thirds of these residents live around the one major town; Stanley; on the east-most edge of East Falkland.

The penguins are everywhere. There are five breeding penguin species on the Falklands; King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Macaroni, and Magellanic. At least four other species are listed as vagrants and are very rarely seen; but these five (excepting perhaps Macaroni) are really quite common and easily found. Because of the 1982 troubles many of the beaches were dressed with land mines. This has kept people off the beaches and allowed the penguins (especially Magellanic and Gentoo) to live pretty much unfettered lives. What was bad for soldiers, and remains bad for residents, has been helpful to the penguins.

If you become interested in the Falklands there are several other posts that refer to these islands and the creatures that live on and around them. These posts are from February 23, 16, 12, 12, and 1 of 2020. There is also a post from September 25, 2019 that helps set the scene.

These are Gentoo Penguins – in this post I will feature King Penguins but this image gives an idea of the landscape and the number of penguins you might encounter on the Falkland islands. The Gentoo nest on the flat low areas and are very common throughout the Falklands. There were estimated to be over 314,000 Gentoo in the last population estimate, but like all penguins they are being impacted by changing environmental conditions due to climate change and commercial fishing. Many of the colonies located near commercial fishing waters are seeing rapid and serious declines.
In amongst the Gentoo there are groups of King Penguins. This is the second largest penguin standing at an average of 90 cm or 35 inches tall. They average 30 pounds and have young that are dependent on the adults for a long period. Female King Penguins tend to be average or less while males will be average or more; both larger and heavier. They do not breed annually but breed twice in three years, a unique strategy among birds. They are less seasonal with their breeding calendar than the larger Emperor Penguin which nests in the very cold regions to the south and is featured in the movie March of the Penguins. King penguin breeding colonies are a mixed bag of ages.
Feather care is essential to all birds. Whether you fly through air or water you need to be neatly arranged to streamline and protect the body. The under-feathers of penguins are almost twisted and felt-like. This inner layer holds air and provides insulation. The inner feathers compress during a dive but spring back into shape as the bird rises and the pressure lessens. There are outer feathers that are a bit longer and help shed water but they have none of the elaborate and showy feathering that aerial birds often have. Like marine mammals they have a fat layer under the skin to help manage body temperatures.
The King Penguin is a bird found all around the southern curve of the earth but not down toward the South Pole. There are more than 2.2 million of these birds and they are found in the Falklands, South Georgia, and a great ring of islands above the Antarctic continent all around toward Australia and South Africa – but on remote islands for the most part. They are not birds of the deep Antarctic.
The young are quite different. Fuzzy and brown they are dependent on their parents for more than a year. The incubation takes about eight weeks and it is another 50 weeks before the youngsters are on their own. The breeding colony is a hodgepodge of ages as molting adults, young adult non-breeders, and families of all sorts of ages gather in the same area. They can and sometime do breed when about 4 years old but probably aren’t very successful until they are 6-7-8 years old.
There are awkward teen-age moments when they feel that life will never go right. The flippers are too long, the hair is never right, clothes don’t seem to fit, and the kids next door always look better.
But sooner or later things start to look up. Especially if you hang out with those kind of plain Gentoo Penguins.
And at some point these ugly ducklings will become part of the noisy (and smelly) colony. Standing tall and honking loudly to let the ladies know that he is sharp looking and a really cool guy. An adult King can dive to a depth of 1000 feet looking for squid and fish. Most of their hunting (and hence swimming) is done at depths of about 30-60 feet. They can easily stay underwater for ten minutes and swim at an average of 4.5 miles per hour. The atmospheric pressure increases by one atmosphere every 33 feet you go down in the water column. So, much of their diving is to a depth of two atmospheres but the 1000 foot dives are to the equivalent of 30 atmospheres. The maximum “safe depth” for an outfitted human diver is about 190 feet. We cannot hold our breaths and the intake and exhale of air will allow nitrogen to enter the blood stream and the nitrogen will expand as the diver rises, causing the bends and possibly death. The Navy allows a diver only 5 minutes at 160′ and then the driver has to rise slowly to allow the nitrogen to leave (decompress) the blood stream.
Molting and feather care are essential for life in these cold waters and cold air and lands as well. Adults will spend a good deal of time on land as they molt. Once the young are able to stand and walk they will often gather in kindergartens or creches and thus allow both parents to forage at the same time. The islands that the Kings use are all around the great Southern Ocean and those found in the Falklands represent a small percentage of the overall population.

One thought on “Penguins – to the Falklands

  1. Excellent and very informative as usual. Seeing all those Beautiful Penguins is fantastic, probably my favorite trip when you throw in the Albatrosses and Sea birds. Thanks , always a great trip to go on the road with DEC.


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