Gentoo penguins, seen here on the island of Steeple Jason in the Falkland Islands, work together during the breeding season to carefully build a nest of grass, moss, feathers, and stones.
Made up of nearly 800 islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, the Falkland Islands form an archipelago on the Patagonia Shelf. If you put the nearly 800 islands together, the resultant mass would cover a stretch about the size of the state of Connecticut.
The islands were once densely populated with endemic flora and fauna, but colonization over the years wiped out indigenous land mammals and most species original to the islands. European settlers introduced Cheviot sheep to the islands in the mid-1800s, and hunted the wolf-like warrah into extinction.
Today, while harboring nearly 3,000 people, the islands are still extremely biodiverse. For every permanent resident, there are 167 sheep. But about 65 species of birds—including albatrosses, caracaras, and penguins—can also be found on the islands, along with dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, and elephant seals in the surrounding ecosystem. The Falklands are often held up as a lesson in conservation, and how society and nature can peacefully coexist.
For the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine, wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen traveled to the Falkland Islands to document this diverse ecosystem. National Geographic caught up with Nicklen, whose video of a starving polar bear wrenched thousands of hearts in December, to talk about his experiences in this remote habitat.
How did you get the idea for this assignment?
I'm always going to Antarctica, and [the Falklands] seems to be one of the major stopping grounds on the way. It always kind of frustrated me that we were just bypassing this place. We would get a glimpse of huge albatross colonies and an underwater world that was rich and diverse.
There seems to be this balance of people, sheep, agriculture, fishing, and really abundant wildlife and nature. I really wanted to do a cross-section of this ecosystem that seemed so rich.
Can you describe your experience at Steeple Jason?
It's a beautiful island. It's long and narrow, four miles by one mile. Basically, you have two main peaks and a causeway in the middle, where all the penguins go and where the sea lions intercept them. It's where the dolphins come in to play. On the long, tussock grass slopes are nesting some 200,000 [pairs of] black-browed albatross and tens of thousands of Gentoo penguins and rockhopper penguins.
The more remote and untouched by man the island, the richer they were.
Do you have a favorite photo from this assignment?
I think the lead image. I was sitting there in awe, photographing, with beautiful light, storms in the distance, looking at tens of thousands of perfectly spaced black-browed albatrosses on their home-made nests and their partners were soaring through the air. And this bird with a seven, eight-foot wingspan comes in, floating behind me on the wind and taps me on the back of the head as it soars over me. And that's the one that you see, the lead image of the wings framing the colony.
I felt that image summarizes a place that wouldn't be protected [without the action of a few conservationists]. Animals there are not used to human disturbance and seemed very relaxed around me. They let me into their world. I got to witness this abundance and this symphony of life scratching out a living. Realizing that it's not just doing well but it's thriving, because of protection.
What was the main thing you learned from photographing this story?
It was like being in the middle of a really intense scientific experiment. On islands that had thousands of sheep I would find almost no nesting habitats, birds, or native animals. At another place, where one person invested in wild habitats, protected it, and got rid of all the sheep and [invasive] rats, we watched [the wildlife] explode. I realized how resilient nature is, how badly it wants to come back.
Four billion years of evolutionary process created these masterpieces in nature. It's just amazing.
Are you optimistic for the future of the Falkland Islands?
You can protect a place like Steeple Jason and have the wildlife thrive and if there's no fishing around it, then the marine ecosystem thrives, but you think of one massive oil spill and you realize that that stuff can be destroyed. We have tens of thousands of birds flying offshore feeding, and ultimately, when you think about the plastics coming down on the ocean currents you realize no place is ultimately safe. You realize how perfect and beautiful it is but also, still, how vulnerable it is with other forces outside of the islands themselves.
It felt like I was going back to my childhood of being immersed in wild habitat, just to be alone on this island with nature like that.
I've always believed that Heaven is here and now. We're so busy in our lives with our phones and computers and we're dreaming of an afterlife of where we're going to go next, but we are living in Heaven. It doesn't get any better than that—this is it for me. And we're killing it.
But being [in the Falklands] really lifted my spirits. It gave me hope that places will recover if we can just get out of the way.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. It has been updated with a few small changes to better clarify the location of predators and number of birds on the islands.