Day 3, The Falkland Islands by Tin Man Lee

A Special Day On Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands, Dec 29, 2015

Suddenly I saw a shadow. Following the lightning-quick movement with a swing of the lens to the right, I snatched a few shots. And I got one decently sharp! That’s a good start, I said to myself.

Canon 1DX, 100-400mm, f/7.1, 1/2500s, ISO 1600 Porpoising Gentoo penguin.

Just when I was ready to give it a few more tries, I heard thunder in the sky. I looked up and felt some light rain on my face. The light all of a sudden turned dull and dropped three stops.

We stayed for another 15 minutes, until the rain got heavier. Seeing that Mom still didn’t feel well, we decided to head back. Nathan and his son left a minute after we did.

After all that moving around with the 600mm lens and tripod, my back pain came back, and I could feel it each step of the way back. With each step sinking into the mud, it took extra effort to walk. The soreness in my right hip felt like having a screwdriver grinding into me from the right.

The raindrops got bigger and bigger, and we walked faster and faster.

By the time we got back to the lodge, the sky was all dark and it was only 5:30 pm—still more than three hours away from sunset. Well, it looked like there wouldn’t be any sunset. Maybe we didn’t even need to delay our dinner with such weather. Life always threw you a curve when you decided to change plans. Mom was tired, so she lay down in the bed while we were reviewing our photos.

An hour later, the light outside got brighter. Seeing me checking out the light, Mom said, “You and Dad should go out. I will take a nap. Just don’t wake me until after nine.” The clouds were actually still quite heavy, with just a few areas that were thinner, but when the sun shined through those area, it created some short bursts of light.

This time, I only took the lighter lenses, the 100-400 and 24-105mm, while Dad took the 70-200.

Gentoo penguins walking back to their colony. Canon 1DX, 100-400mm lens, f/8, 1/800s, ISO 1600

We wandered around the three Gentoo penguin colonies, trying to create shots, but the light was inconsistent and I didn’t get any shots better than those from the days before. That’s when I saw a guy dashing out of the lodge with a big carbon fiber tripod and backpack. He surely was on a mission. When he walked closer, I could see who it was.

“Nathan, are you heading to the beach?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said without any slowing of his footsteps.

I looked at the edge of the sky and saw an opening on the horizon. It was so thin it was almost invisible. Three miles to the beach, with my back hurting. Could I do that?

I looked around to find Dad. He was 50 feet away.

“Dad, let’s go to the beach.”

I almost laughed as I walked next to the penguin highway. Nathan had his headlamp on. Dad and I took each step carefully so that we didn’t fall into the holes in this uneven terrain. It was so dark I wondered what we would be able to photograph by the time we got to the beach.

But I also knew clearly that it was the only place I would get a clear wide-angle shot without my own shadows in the way, because there were at least five unique Gentoo penguin colonies near the beach that had an elevation of five feet.

But again, who was I kidding? I saw absolutely no light.

Yet we didn’t give up. Nathan, my dad, and I were the only three on the island that evening to walk to the beach. Sometimes it felt good to do illogical crazy things, even when it felt like we were out of luck.

If I failed, I would have no regrets. I tried my best. I was being me. And it was the thing I truly loved.

I constantly turned back to check if Dad was okay. He was a few feet behind me, photographing along the way, even though there was no light. I had set the camera for him to shoot automatic at f/2.8, so he might get something I didn’t get.

We knew we were close to the colonies when we saw a grassy field. The grass was about one foot high, and sometimes we saw nesting brown skua, and ducks that might have been steamers. We needed to be careful not to get too close to the skua nests, otherwise we would get dive-bombed by those vicious birds. They had no fear of humans. Nothing had a fear of humans on the island.

Just as we stepped onto the grassy field, things changed. A spike of sunlight penetrated the cloud and splashed through onto the whole continent. It was such a contrast to a second ago that our eyes were partly blinded.

Within a few seconds, the sun went back behind the heavy cloud again, and it turned dark.

“We gotta hurry up,” I said as I sprinted forward towards the five elevated colonies. I knew there might be a chance that the sun could break through again.

My brain went through all the images I’d seen of the Falkland Islands. One picture stood out. It’s a shot where the photographer pointed at the sun with a telephoto, with a sunburst right at the edge of a penguin silhouetted against the sky.

I got near one of the colonies and immediately started to crawl low to the ground. Who cared about the pain back? I thought, but I quickly regretted it. The pain was unimaginable, so I quickly turned sideway to take a break. By then, I saw Nathan walking to the colony closest to the sun, while Dad had disappeared. I trusted he was ok, as he had been there just a few seconds before.

Then the sun came through again. I quickly pointed my camera toward the sun, hoping to “recreate” the shot. After a few adjustments of the zoom, I gave up. This wasn’t a shot that really moved me. I just couldn’t click the shutter. I didn’t want to take what others had taken.

The light came to life. It would disappear for one second and then come back, like huge waves moving the sea of gold towards us. With the colonies’ elevated location, the light would shine on them, while anywhere below them would be in shadow.

Aliens incoming.

1DX, 100-400mm, f/5.6, 1/400s

Seeing the light, the penguins got excited, and thousands of them started to elongate their necks, flapping their wings and calling up into the sky. They were obviously communicating with each other in a language we would never understand.

Gentoo penguins calling. Canon 1DX, 24-105mm, f/5, 1/400s, ISO 800

The whole place had transformed into a planet from outer space. We were on a spaceship with different platforms hanging in mid-air, with the spotlight shining on each of them.

Canon 1DX, 24-105mm, f/5, 1/400s, ISO 800

The calls reminded me of Bosque Del Apache, the sandhill cranes’ call. It was like a trumpet echoing throughout the sky.

They didn’t belong here, where we had destroyed their habitat. They were calling home, a place where they could live harmoniously with other beings.

I got emotional and kept looking around. I wanted to tell Dad and Nathan, and ask them if they felt the same. But they were nowhere to be seen, as I was in the last colony, farthest away. Every time I tried to look for them, it was backlit and the sun blinded my eyes.

I didn’t know how a camera could capture that emotion, so I put down my camera and just soaked myself in the moment.

At that time, I was still 50 feet away from any of the colonies, and unable to get up. I started to roll around, trying to gain momentum. How pathetic it was. I’d never had back pain like that.

The time I went to Yellowstone to photograph river otters, the dial on my camera had stopped working and I couldn’t change my shutter speed or aperture setting. Then, the next time I went to photograph a red fox fighting a coyote after waiting for hours, the battery on my camera suddenly died, even though it was fully charged. These kinds of things happened all the time. And now when I finally prepared everything with spare batteries, cameras and all, my back—which was critical to carrying my gear—had failed.

Was it some kind of a joke?

But nothing could stop me from enjoying the moment.

As I rolled sideways, I watched the penguin colonies being lit up by gold, the gusty wind deafening me, the distant sound of the waves roaring, the most ancient choir singing the songs of nature—all coming together to create the sweetest symphony. I imagined myself dancing to such music.

The moment when the sun went down, the opening in the sky turned pink, while the clouds above it turned deep blue, like a field of coral reef in the deep sea.

Then I saw them. Not Nathan and my dad, but a pair of Gentoo penguins. They slowly walked towards me. They walked closer and closer.

“Hello,” I said to them, “I’m ok.”

I almost forgot about my camera.

“Wait, hold on a sec,” I said as I reached for my camera with the wide-angle lens attached.

They nodded their heads and stayed there for another few seconds. I’ve always dreamed of having a photo of wild animals coming close to me, with more animals in the distance set against a sky with nice clouds. As I looked through the viewfinder, I saw this couple standing close to each other, one slightly behind the other, checking to see if I was ok, and little rocks behind them leading to the colony where they had come from, with the distant purple sky in the background.

I clicked the shutter and said thank you.

Canon 1DX, 24-105mm, f/5, 1/400s, ISO 800

The penguin in the front looked to the right, then looked up to check the sky. After a few seconds, they turned around and walked back to their colony.

Tears filled my eyes.

This was what I’d always been searching for. The rapture of being alive.

The sky turned from pink to purple to blue, and the singing of the penguins slowly stopped. I had never felt so fulfilled and grateful. I finally used my arms to support myself to get back up.

I walked to another colony and finally saw Dad. Then we found Nathan. He was low crawling with his tripod and still shooting.

“We did it,” Dad said.

As we were walking back, Nathan’s family came and joined him. With the low ambient light as our guide, we made our way back to the lodge.

Our chef had put our dinner out, with appetizers, entrées, and dessert all wrapped tightly. Earlier, he had instructed us how to heat it up using the microwave inside the kitchen.

We woke Mom up. She said she was a bit better, but earlier she’d had some bad pain in her ear. She said she had felt some fluid in there. She suspected that her ear was infected due to the flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Then, the flu and fever had worsened it. So even though she had recovered before the trip, the infection had caused another fever. She could barely hear, and her knee was weak. I felt such heartache seeing her struggle so much. Dad and I walked her to the dining room. By the time we got there, Nathan had already finished his dinner and gone back to his room to take care of the kids.

I set my alarm for three am and went to sleep. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep right after I removed my raincoat and shell pants. I smelled my fleece jacket and it stank of penguin poop. Luckily, the smell didn’t make it to the bed when I hung my fleece on by the door.


The above was one of the chapters in my book "In Search of The Golden Teardrop" (194 pages, 69 photos) that's available in Amazon Kindle and PDF format.

The eBook is available now.

Planning a trip to the Falkland Islands but not sure about which hot spots to go? I have written an eBook titled: 20 Mistakes You Should Avoid When Photographing the Falkland Islands: A Wildlife Photographer's Guide that's geared towards wildlife photographers with lots of technical details.

The 120 page eBook is available now.

Are you frustrated that your photos didn't create visual impact to your viewers?

My complete digital workflow on Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop to maximize the visual impact of your images is also available.

About the author:

Tin Man Lee strongly believes that emotional wildlife photos can be taken ethically. He was the Grand Prize recipient of the prestigious Nature's Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International contest, 2013, among other awards. He is currently a judge for Nature's Best Photography Asia and Viewbug. His works have been displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and an invited solo exhibit at HKUST, Hong Kong. His tutorials in wildlife photography have appeared in Outdoor Photographer Magazine and, and his photos have made the covers of Nature's Best Photography magazine, Smithsonian Exhibit Calender, Alaska magazine and NANPA Expressions. His contact info is and his website is at

Still not convinced? Here's a short video I made for the trip. Enjoy!

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