Trip report: Falkland Islands
The spectacular wildlife of the remote Falkland Islands might seem strangely familiar from a dozen documentaries but nothing beats actually being there, when the most memorable moments are found in the detail, writes Dominic Couzens
We’ve all been to the Falklands. That might not be true in the physical sense, but in terms of the images that we see, from television programmes to iconic stills in books, on calendars and on websites, the Falklands are ever-present.
From Spy in the Huddle unveiling the lives of rockhopper penguins, to orcas hunting young elephant seals for the BBC series Life, the wildlife of this South Atlantic archipelago 500km east of the Argentinean coast can seem strikingly familiar.And when you really are there, as I was in February last year, you find yourself settling into an exhilarating muddle between daydream and reality, as if you were on set with an ensemble of famous actors. You stand toe-to-toe with penguins and, after a while, that begins to feel curiously normal, when you know full well it isn’t.
Within a day or two, you expect routinely to see black-browed albatrosses gliding offshore, even if you had never previously set eyes on one. On the beaches, you soon get into the habit of avoiding the hulks of elephant seals, with the same detached nonchalance that you might exhibit avoiding puddles on a pavement in London.
In this atmosphere, it’s the exotic take on small things that reminds you that you’re well away from home. You settle down to a packed lunch of sandwiches, as you might do on a picnic in Britain, and look up to see two Johnny Rooks (as striated caracaras are known in these parts) waiting predatorily a metre or two away for some scraps. You go to relieve yourself in a bunch of tussac grass (there are no native trees on the Falklands) and your intrusion induces a loud and alarming snort from a nearby hidden elephant seal.
When souvenir hunting in Port Stanley, the pint-sized capital, you can look out of the shop window and see a rare Commerson’s dolphin frolicking offshore. You can even play pitch and putt on Sea Lion Island and, with a wayward shot, end up in a gentoo penguin colony – yes, really. Everything routine here is mixed with the entirely abnormal, and the result is a rarefied treat for the traveller.
The best way to enjoy the Falklands as a wildlife enthusiast is to ensure that you have a chance to linger. Cruise ships call in on Stanley and disgorge tourists who can book wildlife tours, but they all pack up at the end of the day and leave the islands behind. The location is too rich and special for this. You need time here to enjoy the small and privileged events – the Falklands Fringe, you might call it. An example is the Evening Seaweed Binge on Carcass Island.
During my two day stay on this glorious, peaceful, 7km long island in the north-west of the archipelago, I drank my inevitable intoxicating fill of the atmosphere generated by the mixed penguin colony of gentoos and Magellanics at the southern end. Yet just as memorable was the gentle stroll back to island’s guest house, where, in the bronzed light of late afternoon, all the island’s small birds – Falkland thrushes, the brilliantly coloured long-tailed meadowlark, the blackbird-like tussacbird (official name blackish cinclodes) and the perky – and very rare – Cobb’s wren – would gather beside a small freshwater brook emptying down a beach, and drink and snatch flies from the seaweed. It was as if the members of the mini-community were visiting their local pub.
Small plotlines stand out when you are immersed in the big attractions, too. After all, how do you describe what it’s like to visit a large penguin colony: “there were all these black-and-white birds standing upright on a beach close together”? No, it’s the details that stick and inspire. For example, how do you tell a Magellanic penguin from a gentoo? I found out on Carcass Island that Magellanics are highly strung to the point of mania, while gentoos are far more relaxed. ‘A Magellanic is close to panic’. These small penguins are the first to run away from you, which they do without much thought, and frequently back themselves into corners or huddles. When threatened, members of a group will corral into a mass of shuddering bodies, quite unsure what to do. They are comically nervous, as if penguins weren’t already comical enough. If you are sitting beside a penguin walkway (many places in the Falklands), the gentoos will wander past as if they were window-shopping, while the Magellanics will catch sight of you, stop, take a few steps, retreat, and eventually run past as fast as they can in the vain hope that they might sprint to safety.
Gentoos are not immune from red-faced moments. I revelled in one encounter where a distinctly well-grown youngster confronted its returning parent physically with a demand for food that could have been compared to a foul-mouthed teenage strop. Rather than give in to the bullying, the adult simply began running away. Its pestering progeny chased it, initiating a hot-heeled pursuit all around the colony that faintly resembled one of those Benny Hill Show chases from a couple of decades ago.
And incidentally, while Magellanic penguins avoid the visitor, king penguins, it seems, do quite the opposite. A couple of times I was astonished to find a king penguin actually approaching me and displaying, stretching itself up tall and waggling its flippers. At Volunteer Point, the well visited beach on East Falkland where a thousand kings breed, the human-penguin interaction is as much a feature of the Falkland Theatre as the wildlife itself.Just across the narrow strait from Carcass Island is the equally lovely and equally sparsely inhabited Westpoint Isla
nd (both islands have a human population of two apiece). Here, the main attraction is the mixed colony of rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatrosses. When you first arrive, all you can sense is the intimidating mass of birds – their movements, sounds, mess and smells, overpowering in all aspects. But here again, if you settle down within the colony (and you can walk right past all the birds here), details define your experience. Within the colony, which occupies a wide semi-circle of cliff, it soon became apparent to me that there was a sort of Westpoint Regional Airport, a virtual albatross landing strip, where the birds zoomed down the incline, but then slowed as they encountered updrafts from the edge of the cliff, before dropping down with a measure of control. As you looked up at the mass of wide-winged birds over the cliffs, you could see that some were making wide circles over the strip, as if stacked by air traffic control, and each bird came down in its appointed slot.
Sea Lion Island, the southernmost of the Falkland group (which surprisingly has 750 islands spread over 350km of ocean), is another place where it pays to linger and lap up the atmosphere. It is named for its pinnepeds, of which the southern elephant seals are the undoubted superstars. In truth, even on fleeting acquaintance it is obvious that these animals clearly have only two moods – infinitely relaxed to the point of torpor and shockingly belligerent. While relaxed they adorn the beaches like mighty slabs of rock, the only signs of life being monologues of flatulent-sounding belches (actually made through the elephantine nose), the occasional outlet of breath and the odd shift of blubber, as if turning in bed; they are rather like living hot volcanic springs. With extraordinary frequency, however, disputes break out, and within seconds two animals will have reared up to face each other, will be roaring at top volume and will strike out at each other like wrecking balls, trading blows with their muscle-bound upper bodies and doing their best to bite an opponent. Yet hilariously, these disputes will often fizzle out to such an extent that two opponents will, without warning, simply slump to the ground and lie side by side as if nothing had happened.
It pays to watch an elephant seal dispute for two reasons. For one thing, a skirmish can develop into a more serious clash, with repeated rounds and, quite often, unpleasant injuries and a loss of blood; this might not be your cup of tea as a wildlife watcher, but if you do see it, it is utterly compelling. Secondly, if you really linger and spend your time, an extraordinary thing can happen. With no more than about 20 or 30 people on Sea Lion Island at any one time, you can easily find that the theatre has emptied and that you are the only witness to this titanic joust between the second heaviest land mammals on earth, often taking place just a few metres away from your feet. As you watch, you might imagine the voice of David Attenborough narrating the plot, but actually it will be you alone, and you alone. It’s just the kelp-bespattered beach, the wind, the waves, the sparring seals and you – an audience of one on the Falkland Fringe.
five of the best… Falklands flora and fauna
It’s easier to see the world’s second largest penguin in the Falklands than anywhere else. The colony at Volunteer Point is also the most northerly in the world. In common with the better known emperor penguin, individual kings incubate their eggs on top of the feet, and the fluffy teddy bear-like young are box-office gold.
Falkland steamer duck
One of the two species of birds endemic to the Falklands (Cobb’s wren is the other). These outsized ducks are common throughout the islands, mainly in salt water. The name comes from the way they plough quickly through the water, flapping their short wings and splashing in a way that vaguely resembles an old paddle-steamer.
This small black-and-white dolphin is almost restricted to the southern tip of South America (isolated population on Kerguelen), with the Falklands a key site. It often occurs in shallow water and is inquisitive. Apparently the act of tossing a stone into the water from land, or even tapping on a jetty, can attract it.
Each breeding season (October to January) a group of orcas returns to Sea Lion Island and hunts young elephant seals, close in among the kelp. It’s an unusual piece of behaviour, and the orcas risk being stranded, but it means that, if you are really lucky, you can get unrivalled views of these charismatic creatures.
You don’t look for tussac grass, it finds you. On the offshore islands it forms dense stands like miniature forests up to 3m tall, and getting through a stand is like negotiating a particularly mean obstacle course. On the plus side it provides an ideal sheltered micro-climate for the small birds and invertebrates.
Dominic Couzens travelled courtesy of the Falkland Islands Tourist Board (www.falklandislands.com). He stayed at Darwin House (www.darwin-house.com), Carcass Island, Sea Lion Lodge (www.sealionisland.com) and Waterfront Hotel, Stanley (www.waterfronthotel.co.fk) Sample Package Tour: Naturetrek offers an 18-day tour for £6,995, going in November. The tour visits Volunteer Point, Pebble Island, Carcass Island, Sea Lion Island, Kidney Island and Stanley. www.naturetrek.co.uk
There are two ways to get there. One is to use the ‘Air Bridge’ from RAF Brize Norton, which touches down briefly on Ascension Island. It departs twice a week. Scheduled services are offered by LAN, the Chilean carrier, via Santiago, touching town at Punta Arenas on the way (www.lan.com).
Visa Requirements from the UK:
None. However, it is essential that your travel insurance includes MediVac so that, in the event of a serious emergency, you can be flown out from the islands.
Tips and Warnings:
The Falklands offer a very safe and convenient destination. They are a British protectorate, with English spoken everywhere and British culture embraced. The ongoing dispute with Argentina over sovereignty is a festering sore. When in the islands the best way to get around is by using the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) Islander Aircraft, which will add cost to your trip if you’re not on a package tour.
When to Go:The main breeding season lasts from October to March, the islands’ summer, and this is when all the main package tours go. It is perfectly possible to visit outside this time and still see plenty of wildlife. The climate isn’t cold, but it is extremely variable, with “four seasons in an afternoon”. Pack layers. Always expect conditions to be windy.
Naturetrek Tel: 01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk