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.