In 2019, photographer Tobias Baumgaertner snapped a romantic shot of two widowed penguins overlooking a pier in Melbourne, Australia. He shared the photograph on his Instagram during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help lift people's spirits and it quickly went viral, garnering thousands of likes, comments, and shares. So, it's only fitting that Baumgaertner's photo, which was nominated for the Community Choice Award in the 2020 Ocean Photography Awards, won the title by popular vote.
“I posted this image of these two Fairy penguins a little more than half a year ago and since then it has circled the globe, it has been seen by millions, and I have received thousands of messages and comments of how these two little guys have touched and mended broken hearts, brought joy, hope and love into your lives,” Baumgaertner said on his Instagram. “It has become a symbol of togetherness and love. Times are still not easy for many of us, [so] I repeat what I wrote back then. During times like this, the truly lucky ones are those that can be with the person/people they love most.”
The German wildlife photographer spent three nights with the Fairy penguin colony in St. Kilda in hopes of attaining the perfect picture. Although the conditions were difficult, and he wasn't able to use any lights, his patience finally paid off when he captured two penguins comforting each other in front of the pier. “A volunteer approached me and told me that the white one was an elderly lady who had lost her partner and apparently so did the younger male to the left,” Baumgaertner wrote. “Since then they meet regularly comforting each other and standing together for hours watching the dancing lights of the nearby city.”
This heartfelt backstory on the two penguins was unlike any of the others Baumgaertner came across. “The way that these two lovebirds were caring for one another stood out from the entire colony,” he shares. “While all the other penguins were sleeping or running around, those two seemed to just stand there and enjoy every second they had together, holding each other in their flippers and talking about penguin stuff.”
Unsurprisingly, this touching tale of two widowed penguins embracing each other melted the hearts of people around the globe. However, there's a bit more to the story. Earthcare St. Kilda, a non-profit that manages the colony, wrote that the penguins might actually be related. They identified the penguin on the right as a pre-molt adult and the penguin on the left as a juvenile that may be the offspring of the adult. Even so, this photograph is a tender portrait of two loving animals.