A penguin’s trip home
I went to the police rescue unit to take pictures of a Humboldt penguin, which is on the endangered list, that had been rescued a few days earlier from a beach full of bathers, very far from its natural habitat. The police chief told me, “We’re going to free it. Come with us.” Lima, Peru, is a city on the edge of the Pacific, with buildings and beaches full of summer tourists, traffic, noise and heat…and amidst all that, Tomas appeared.
Tomas was quiet and relaxed while awaiting his transfer to an island where there are entire colonies of his kind. The police rescuers took turns taking pictures with him and chatting about what penguins are all about. They named him Tomas after their cook at headquarters, because they both walked with the same gait.
Tomas provoked a child’s reaction in everyone, making them (and me) stop work to just watch a cute bird, take care of him, talk about him, and wonder how he had ended up on the beach. Tomas was restless and waddled all around the police station, giving me ample opportunity to take pictures.
We waited for the police to finish the paperwork for Tomas’ transportation and they put him into a patrol car. We went to a nearby beach to take a boat to San Lorenzo Island. By instinct Tomas only wanted to walk to the sea, mindless of the people and dogs all around.
The slow boat took three hours to the islands offshore Lima, famous for their colonies of birds, seals and fish. We searched for more penguins to leave Tomas with and found a group of his species where the rescuers decided that the mission had ended. Three of the police lifeguards who had taken a liking to Tomas escorted him in the water, watching him submerge and easily beat them to shore. We left him there, in the perfect natural habitat.
It was a great opportunity to take photos of different situations that rarely present themselves to me on the job – police giving affection to an animal, an animal returning to its natural habitat, and a penguin as symbol of a natural life that was lost in an urban setting.
What to photograph of a penguin?
That’s the question I had when I began the story, but in the end I realized that I had a beautiful story to share. When I got home I showed the photos to my small son and his cousins, and told them the story of Tomas. That was motive to chat about all the animals that live near Lima, especially on the many islands that are natural reserves. Many of them are endangered species. I told them that when we were boarding the boat the lifeguards handed me Tomas when they needed their hands free, and the kids were curious to know what it was like to carry a penguin. What came to mind was that it was just like carrying a child. He was very calm and kept looking out to sea. It was a moment when I felt very privileged.
As a photographer one always has the chance to be a front row observer of others’ lives, be close to celebrities and presidents. This time I was deeply touched by someone very important – Tomas the penguin.