Gary’s Guide to the Falklands, part two
Polar specialist and penguin enthusiast, Gary, talks about his adventures in the Falkland Islands. Read on for part two of his journey…
While the capital is well serviced by roads and ships, the lifeblood of the outer islands is the local airline ‘FIGAS’. Their small army of crimson propeller planes transport locals, goods and tourists over the scattered seas, offering up a veritable feast of vistas for those lucky enough to be on board. It was on one such aircraft that we made our way southwards to the speck of land known as Bleaker Island. Its name could not be less appropriate.
After making a perfect landing on a grassy plain, we unloaded our luggage and were immediately introduced to some babbling balls of white fluff that turned out to be giant petrel chicks being closely monitored by their eagle-eyed parents.
A short drive then took us to Sandy Bay where I lay on the beach below a sweltering sun, with three different species of penguin swimming, squawking and shuffling just inches from my feet. It was difficult to imagine how the day could possibly get any better, but after dropping off our luggage and being served a sumptuous meal at the unexpectedly outstanding lodge, we made the 15-minute trek to a nearby colony of ridiculous rockhoppers. These little rascals, with their distinctive yellow brows and oversized feet, were the most inquisitive of all the wildlife we were to encounter. For obvious reasons, visitors are asked not to get too close to the various cute critters they come across, but if you are patient and peaceful, those cute critters are more than happy to come to you. For hours, while the daylight dimmed and eventually the darkness dawned, we sat and smiled as we were pecked and poked, first by the fuzzy fledglings, then by their more cautious carers. After the twinkling stars had guided us back to our beds, I fell asleep unable to dream of a more perfect day than the one I had just had.
As soon as we woke, we headed back out to make the most of what was to be another cloudless day. This time our focus was to be the all action colony of imperial cormorants. Over 8,000 breeding pairs are located in the centre of the island, but all of them are under the eternal observation of hundreds of sinister spies. As their partners return from the sea boasting bellies full of fish with which to feed their young, the mother cormorants shift sideways on their nests enabling their babies to eat, but exposing them for just a moment to the skuas soaring above. That was often enough. Time-after-time, we looked on as horrified, helpless parents watched their unfortunate offspring get snatched away and take their lowly place in the circle of life. While the penguins had amused and entertained us, the harrowing theatre that played out in front of us here was a drama so absorbing, so spell binding and so mesmerizing that you just simply could not take your eyes off it.
The FIGAS flight schedules are unpredictable and changeable. They are only drawn up the evening before they are executed and their order of service is dictated by the location of all passengers that need transferring that day. Therefore if you have only one night on an island, it is possible that you may arrive at dusk and depart at dawn. This was to be the case with our flying visit to Pebble Island. Despite the shortness of our stay, Pebble – named for the semi-precious stones that once graced the shores, still managed to shine.
It is a much larger and more mountainous island than Bleaker and so requires transportation to reach the best of its bounties. It is home to all 5 of the Falkland’s penguin species, as well as sea lions and many rare birds. However, the big difference between this island and all others, with the exception of the main island of East Falkland, is that it played a significant role during the war and it has plenty of mangled metal to prove it. Shortly after the initial invasion, the Argentines established an airbase, created a garrison for around 150 troops and effectively held the inhabitants hostage. The British Special Forces liberated the island a month later without loss of life, but the scattered scraps of bullet peppered planes that still remain, along with the memorial for the HMS Coventry which was lost along with 19 of her men just north of the island, tell a human story that must not be overlooked.
Carcass Island, which takes its name from a ship that visited its shores in the late 18th century, was our next port of call. Its wonderful lodge is located in an idyllic setting, sheltered by tropical trees, just a stones throw away from a tranquil cove. Striated caracaras nest nearby and vast colonies of gentoos are a 45 minute walk along the craggy coastline. It was an animal of a much larger scale that we had really come to see though. As we crossed the crest of the muddy mound which took us from a grassy field to the sand and sea, there was an audible gasp as our first elephant seals came in to view. These ginormous beasts, which can grow up to 16 feet long and weigh upwards of 3 tons, have an enchanting ability to somehow be both mysteriously handsome and hideously ugly at the same time. The propensity of the adolescent bulls to take part in vicious, bloody battles, seemingly with very little need for provocation of any kind, led to many a magnificent and majestic sight. As a keen disciple of David Attenborough and his work, it had long been an ambition of mine to see such an event unfold, but in fact it was the startling sound that was the most impressive aspect. The thuds and thumps and thrashes and crashes were drowned out by the even more thunderous, throaty roars that reverberated through the air, alerting the entire island to the brutal brawl that was taking place.
Overnight, a murky mist descended meaning our planned trip to Darwin and its nearby battlefields had to be cancelled and we were instead, invited to stay a second night on Carcass. The weather also hindered any attempts to make the 5 mile boat trip to West Point Island, home to thousands of pairs of black browed albatross. Happily, by the afternoon the fog had dissipated and we were able to head back down the coast to the gentoo colonies. We plonked ourselves on the beach and obsessively observed as hundreds upon hundreds of orange beaked torpedoes launched themselves from the sea, into the air, and onto the sand in front of us. They would dust themselves down and regain their bearings before marching off in search of their chicks.
Of over a thousand photos I took that day, I believe I have just one that even begins to adequately capture the routine. Sometimes it is best to just put the camera down and watch, but you find yourself immediately picking it up again, determined to get that one immaculate image that will bring all of Facebook to a standstill.
The following day we were able to make our final FIGAS flight back to the capital. From here we set off by super jeep for one of the Falkland’s most renowned and visited sites, Volunteer Point. It is a bumpy two-and-a-half hour bone rattling ride over back-breaking topography, but those who brave it are rewarded with a sight of barely believable beauty. The region is home to the second largest colony of king penguins in the world and even when one might expect a touch of penguin fatigue to have started to take hold, it was the scene that still drew the biggest breath of all. Approximately 1,000 breeding adult pairs raise around 500 chicks each year here and I was fortunate enough to see representatives of all the stages of maturity, from white pristine eggs to big brown bundles of fur looking like well-wrapped warriors from Winterfell. Another thousand photos later and the time had come to head for home.
Life has a horrible habit of ebbing away so subtly, so discreetly, and yet so quickly, that it is often all too easy to forget what it is for…revelling in the happiness that its fleeting moments of pure perfection can bring. Of course, different people will always have different priorities, different ambitions and different desires – but more than anywhere else I have ever experienced, the Falklands can provide those flawless freeze frames of existence that you will never ever forget.