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In the Presence of Kings and Giants

The Falkland Islands—off the southern tip of South America, a little north of mainland Antarctica—aren’t exactly at the cutting edge of new itineraries. But for intrepid travelers, isolation is the allure.

By Chuck Graham

Rockhopper penguins on Saunders Island. Photos by Chuck Graham.

 

t was a heavyweight bout of mammoth proportions and I had a ringside seat on a remote, windswept beach on the Falkland Islands. The two beach masters, a pair of 5,000-pound southern elephant seal bulls, were battling over a throng of females and precious territory. After several minutes I deemed their fight a stalemate, the bulls’ bloodshot eyes rolling in the back of their heads and their necks raw from sharp teeth. But suddenly the pendulum swung: one of the bulls got the upper hand, relying on a slight downward slope of sand. With momentum on his side he overpowered his opponent like a sumo wrestler, the loser wobbling like a gargantuan inchworm toward the teeth-chattering Atlantic.

Competition between southern elephant seals is deadly serious. The islands breed self-sufficiency and reward travelers with views few will ever see.

More than 700 islands encompass the Falklands archipelago, 300 miles off the tip of South America. About 2,400 Falklanders live on the chain—2,200 of them on East Falkland Island. The rest are far flung on ranches and farms, some seeing very few people except from December through February when visitors come to enjoy thousands of gregarious penguins, beastly seals and sea lions, and an assortment of avian species.

Besides the extraordinary wildlife, historical points of interest abound on East Falkland, mainly from the 1982 war between the United Kingdom and Argentina. The conflict over the disputed archipelago lasted just 74 days, the British keeping their wayward territory. That was good news for the wildlife, which has experienced little or no predation or disturbances from introduced animals and human occupation.

Carcass Island

Rob McGill has owned and lived on Carcass Island for 30 years. His farm has 650 sheep, 100 cows, and a vegetable garden. For most of the year he is the only human on the island, but come summer he hosts travelers seeking a unique wildlife experience.

The Falklands demand hardiness from visitors and residents alike. Rob McGill has lived here for three decades. Most of the year he is alone, living on the farm at the end of this rocky shoreline on Carcass Island.

At dawn I woke to the sound of donkeys braying. Or so I thought. Stepping out of the sunroom I instead found Magellanic penguins—otherwise known as jackass penguins—sounding off and burrowing along the perimeter of the farmhouse.

McGill joined me down at the beach after milking his cows. “I enjoy visitors coming to my island,” he said. “But once the season is over I need that break during the winter.”

So six months out of the year, McGill gets supplies he needs from Stanley delivered by boat or small plane. The only company for the lifelong Falklander is the wildlife that’s literally just outside his kitchen door.

A black-browed albatross colony is established on Saunders Island.

Saunders Island

A turbulent 10-minute flight southwest of Carcass, Saunders Island quite possibly offers the best wildlife experience in the archipelago. The island’s owner, Suzan Pole-Evans, drops me off for a three-night stay at a remote portacabin located in a place appropriately named “The Neck.” It’s a broad stretch of beach between two steep peaks, home to 1,500 gentoo penguins and two robust rockhopper penguin colonies. Several black-browed albatross colonies occupy the steep cliffs overlooking the ocean, and with their distinct eight-foot-wide wingspans they enjoy persistent winds that howl across The Neck.

Hardy birds with wild hairdos, rockhoppers have no knees. They literally hop up and down steep cliffs, leaving their colonies of fuzzy chicks for the crashing surf several times a day. At one point I couldn’t resist the temptation and jumped in the frigid ocean, bodysurfing a couple of waves with some rockhoppers before a throbbing ice cream headache got the better of me.

After thawing out, I bundled up and headed down to the gentoo penguin colonies. I slowly approached one of the colonies then lied down just outside the perimeter. The chicks were the most curious. Getting down at their level made them more comfortable and they waddled to within a foot of me. One chick reached out and gently grabbed my left index finger with its beak. Then as if a bell were rung and recess was over, many of the adult gentoos paraded off toward the sea, zigzagging their way into the cobalt blue Falkland Islands Current.

Volunteer Point

The transfer from parent to parent was all about finesse. Whether it was the egg or the newborn chick, neither touched the ground, as the largest penguins on the Falklands balanced parenthood with the utmost care.

King penguins are relatively slender, giving them a distinctly regal posture.

The king penguin colony at Volunteer Point is the chain’s biggest. Some 1,200 nesting pairs huddle together on the beach, their vibrant colors standing out against the stark landscape—a rugged, unforgiving environment to raise a chick.

A fatty lair covered in dense feathers hung just above the king’s webbed feet. Then a chick poked its head out from underneath the insulated protective layer, catching a glimpse of its doting parents and the harsh outside world. It saw groups of kings socializing, preening their feathers and exiting the frothy surf, shaking off frosty beads before rejoining the colony.

Gently, the attentive parents nuzzled their offspring beak to beak. Assuring a trust that could only be broken by their life on the edge, tenderness in a foreboding landscape.

05-01-2010

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