Photographing Wild Penguins on Martillo Island


Penguin Rookery 

Martillo Island – Southern Patagonia, Argentina

As a photographer you don’t always have to be paid in hard cash. Bartering can be an effective tool in leveraging your talent. A case in point: I was at Pira Tour Travel the day before yesterday booking an all-day trip to photograph the wild penguins on Martillo Island; Pira Tour Travel is the only company in Ushuaia, Argentina that provides an actual walking tour through the Penguin rookery to see up close and personal the Magellanic, Gentoo and King Penguins (it’s expensive at 2,130 pesos or $140 usd per person).

In the course of booking my reservation I mentioned that I was a wildlife photographer and I was asking all kinds of photography related questions: time of day lighting directions, camera to subject distances, lens recommendations and the like. I had also given the person helping me my business card—he looked up my website and immediately called his boss. Bottom-line they offered to let Joel come along for free (a 2 x 1 deal) if they could use some of my photographs and any articles we might write about the expedition (a value of $140 usd). I said absolutely and now we’re both going.

It was a six-hour tour by mini-bus and Zodiac. First the mini-bus took us on a long, convoluted, roundabout trek to our launch site and then we travelled to Martillo Island by Zodiac (the last time I was in a Zodiac was in the Galapagos Islands). A local guide-naturalist (Augustin) escorted our very small group on the island as we walked among the birds. We saw Magellanic and Gentoo Penguins but the King Penguins weren’t there. This was a rare opportunity (like Galapagos) to get really close to wildlife without disturbing it overmuch (2-meter separation rule).


Steve Photographing Gentoo Penguins

(Photo: Courtesy J.R. Dennstedt)

Martillo Island

To reach Estancia Harberton (Estab. 1886) we travelled by mini-bus for 1-1/2 hours (the first 45-minutes was on a paved highway but the last 45-minutes was on a dirt and gravel road. Martillo Island is owned by Estancia Harberton (private property) and the Penguins of course. Once we reached the Estancia we boarded our Zodiac for the 10 to 15-minute ride over to the island. The Zodiac was larger than the one I used in Galapagos and had the added benefit of being covered which helped with the spray and cold.

The Gentoo Penguins greeted us as we stepped down from the beached Zodiac. They make quite a visual statement with their brightly colored bills and flippers. They’re very cute and somewhat larger than the black and white Magellanic Penguins. The 2-meter separation rule means you can’t approach any closer than 2-meters but it doesn’t mean they can’t approach you (and they do just like in Galapagos). As Augustin told us: It’s their island after all. Walking inland from the shore to photograph the Magellanic Penguins we had to be careful where we stepped.


Steve Photographing Magellanic Penguins

(Photo: Courtesy J.R. Dennstedt)

Martillo Island

The Magellanic Penguins are funny little critters and you’re really tempted to reach out and pet them (a big no-no). I was able to get very close and they had a habit of walking closer to me still. My Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM zoom telephoto lens has a minimum focusing distance (MFD) of 1.2 meters and I had to back up often. Looking at the top photo (at the beginning of this post) you can see these little guys have burrows (nests) everywhere so you have to watch your step. The male Penguins arrive first and prepare the nests for the female’s arrival and approval.

We had a great time on this expedition. Many thanks to Pira Tour Travel for their generosity and professionalism. Allowing us to barter our photographic and writing skills for one free passage (2 x 1) was huge and really helped our travel budget. The booking was quick, easy and enjoyable. Our local guide-naturalist Augustin was bilingual and spoke perfect English—he was extremely helpful and attentive. Jose our driver was likewise the consummate professional and we always felt safe. If you travel to Ushuaia (in Southern Patagonia) I recommend Pira Tour Travel.


Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, Traveller

Ushuaia (Southern Patagonia) Argentina




5 responses to “Photographing Wild Penguins on Martillo Island

  1. Amazing … can not even think of another word to describe these fantastic photos of the wild penguins in Patagonia. Happy that you were successful as a bartering photographer too! Joel owes you dinner, scotch and cigar!

    • Thanks Tim, I think you would have enjoyed yourself out there. However your 500mm would have been WAY too long. I couldn’t even use my 400mm, it was the 70-200mm all the way.

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