Any parent worth their salt (or surfer worth their saltwater) has seen the cartoon Surf’s Up, but what you may not realize is that the idea of surfing penguins actually isn’t that far-fetched.
Although dolphins typically top the list when we think of critters that surf, the Gentoo penguin in the Falkland Islands might be the animal that comes closest to surfing waves like we do, even riding on their on feet on open-faced waves at times.
After a long day of fishing, the Gentoo come home to an idyllic beach life in the Falklands (which are located off the southern tip of South America), where they have no natural predators except for the sea lions and leopard seals lurking right offshore. To ensure that they get home with their catch to enjoy the nightly beach party, these penguins, which are the fastest swimming penguin in existence, bodysurf waves towards shore, much like dolphins. But when the waves start to break, that’s when things get crazy.
On occasion, the bodysurfing Gentoo will actually break through the water’s surface onto the face of the waves and perform a quixotic hybrid of surfing and barefoot waterskiing, planing down the face on their webbed feet before getting rolled onto the safety of the sand.
The inspiration for a beloved children’s surf film (and parody of cult classic North Shore)? While Big Z’s hairdo might more closely resemble the feather markings of the rockhopper penguins (also Falkland Island locals), there's a high possibility the idea for a movie about surfing penguins started with the Gentoo. Where they came up with Chicken Joe, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess.
So a life of fishing, surfing, and nightly luaus with their tribe across a pristine island chain—Gentoo penguins might be the original beach boys, and are likely the happiest wave-riding animal in existence. Except for that family of Australian swans at Kirra, of course.
Internationally renowned award-winning nature photographer Tin Man Lee recently returned from a trip to the Falkland Islands, where he watched the Gentoos surf for a week and managed to capture two of what he says were some of the most difficult images he’s ever captured. For more from Tin Man, check out his website.