A man's quest to capture the world’s 17 penguins on film – our Jackass included

Cape Town - It may be hard to imagine a penguin chilling next to a river with lush rainforest foliage as a backdrop. In fact, you’d probably think it absurd. But this image is just one of many privileged moments that Australian photographer Doug Gimesy has captured for posterity.

“It took a year of planning, eight days of travel, three days in a coastal rain forest, two days standing up to chest height in a river and 272 sand-fly bites,” the grinning Australian told News24 via a Skype interview.

It was a hot day in 2014 when he finally encountered the Fiordland penguin about 200m inland on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Breeding under high rainforest canopy in caves, under overhangs, or in dense vegetation, they will sometimes travel hundreds of meters inland, climbing up hills or swimming up streams to gain access to their burrows.

“I still have the sand-fly scars months later but I would do it again. Absolutely!”

One of his penguin snaps recently secured him a finalist spot in the conservation section of the California Academy of Sciences Big Picture photography competition.

Southern Hemisphere

There is some debate as to how many species of penguins there are in the world, with scientists swaying between 17 and 20. But the 53-year-old Australian settled on the conservative figure when making it his goal to get all of them on film three years ago. 

He is already sitting on 12 species, although he’d like to return and improve the shots he has of two of them. Next year’s travels will take him to Chile, the Galapagos Islands and Southern Africa.

The African Penguin, also known as the Jackass because of its donkey-like sounds, is the only penguin breeding on the continent. Gimesy has his eye on colonies in Namibia and on the west coast of South Africa. 

Many people may not know that wild penguins can only be found in the Southern Hemisphere.


Realising a three-decade long dream in 2012 to set foot on Antarctica sparked off the somewhat quirky quest. He’d wanted to go as a young zoologist but was hindered by a fear of having to experience extreme seasickness.

“I remember standing on the bow of the boat when crossing the Antarctic Convergence where you get a sudden temperature drop. I can honestly say it was one of the few times I have shed a tear of joy in my life. It was great.”

He has two Masters degrees - in environment and bioethics. His mission is closely linked to conservation and the fear that these birds, which rely so heavily on stocked and clean oceans, will not be around if humans continue on their current course.

Overfishing, oil spills and climate change are currently a reality.

“I had been hoping to get to South Africa this year to photograph the Jackass because they are actually in serious decline. In just three generations there has been a population decline of around 60%.”

Conversely, the human population continues to grow.

Penguin and human eye-to-eye

Gimesy’s eyes light up as he says there is little not to love about penguins. His reasons shoot up and out like penguins off the curl of a slick ice-slope – they can’t fly so you have more time to observe them; they dart beautifully through the sea; many keep the same partner season after season; they share care of their young.

“We can’t say the same for all homo sapiens!”

In somewhat magical, eerie moments of isolation, photographer and penguin eye each other out, their curiosity almost bridging the species gap. 

Taken three years ago in the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, a King Penguin approached the somewhat odd-looking figure lying on the ground. Largely unused to predators on land, the chap cocked his head sideways, his eyes not allowing him to check out his visitor directly.

“It came up and started pecking at my lens which made it nearly impossible to take my picture,” Gimesy chuckles.

He adjusted his lens and slid back as much as he could to secure the shot. It’s sensibly illegal to go up close to the birds and other animals in the Antarctic region but okay if the bird approaches of its own initiative. 

Alone at Christmas

Gimesy is still touched by the memory of a lone Adelie penguin he encountered around seven months ago, a few days before Christmas. It had ended up around 10 00km from its usual home on the Antarctic continent and washed ashore on MacQuarie Island.

“One lone Adelie penguin stood there so far from home, being ignored by other penguin species, even though it would occasionally try to engage with them. It was just so sad,” he says as he wrinkles his brow a little.

“I would have seriously considered picking him up and moving him, had it not been illegal and if I had known exactly where home was.” 


Fully experiencing moments like these is what Gimesy loves about the wild and being away from the distractions of modern life.

“I believe the use of imagery, still or moving, is one of the most powerful ways of engaging and motivating people about the natural world. My hope is that my pictures will help do that”.

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