So, back to our freezing windy base in the South Atlantic – but joy of joys, it was thinking about Spring as we returned home (just thinking mind you!) – only odd flurries of snow rather than metre drifts, and blue sky could be spotted. All this gave us hope that the helis would fly, and on Sunday, we were able to fly up to Volunteer point – the headland on the far north-eastern tip of East Falkland. Dropped mid morning, the heli disappeared, with the ranger pointing in the direction of the beach, and telling us to be back at 3.30. Phoebe was amused to see no landing area – just a field – the crew open the loading door as you near the ground, and appear to point to the least boggy bit to land on – very technical !
Heavy rain might have put a damper on this expedition– only a small portacabin for shelter – but we were in luck – cold but sunny all day, and the wildlife had us utterly gripped. The beaches here are pure white – caribbean white – and the sea is clear azure – with crashing waves straight from the deep Atlantic. The constant wind, catches the white horses and tosses the spray high into the air – quite magical.
There are massive kelp beds off the coasts here – as large as forests – feeding grounds for seals - and the kelp washed up on the shore is impressive – some metres long, with individual strands 30+ cm broad. My current favourite is basket kelp, which produces what can only be describes as huge wicker baskets of roots washed up on the shore – presumably used in the past for storage.
Anyway, back to the wildlife – hundreds of busy sandpipers as ever, magellan oystercatchers with their dinner suits and red eyes, and the pretty two banded plover which runs up and down jumping the waves like a toddler. Big fat flightless steamer ducks sit on the shore line and paddle about in a waddly way. Gulls are of course ever present. But more interestingly shags, cormorants, and petrels, elegant with their slim and angular wings, skimming the tops of the waves, and dropping dramatically to fish.
The high point of course, in this place, is the penguins. Two types here -the two key all-year residents; Gentoos – medium size, black and white, with orange beaks, and King penguins – tall, fabulous posture, with that impressive slash of orange across the face. They plod with a mission, beaks in the air, like old fashioned policemen, whereas the Gentoos busy around, shoulders hunched to the wind.
Such is our ignorance that we were amazed to see babies – HUGE balls of brown feathers. We were told that babies hatch at Christmas – what we didn’t realise was that the King penguin breeding cycle is 12 months; at this time of year the babies are 9 months old, and kept all together at on end of the beach in a creche, while the parents go out to fish. There were hundreds of big brown bodies, patrolled by perhaps 20 or so adults, and from time to time a group of parents would hop out of the sea, plod deliberately up the sand, and find their chick (how?) to feed it. The chicks are feisty now, and chase the parents for more and more food –it is 100% better than TV ! On this one beach, there are perhaps 3-400 King penguins, plus chicks, and probably double that number of Gentoos. Fabulous photo opportunities, because nothing runs away !
After our many cancelled trips before the holiday to Chile, we were determined to make the most of the last week before school, and so after a quiet day on Monday, we took up Jenny Luxton’s kind offer to visit Sea Lion Island (Jenny manages the island). It is vital for Bill to understand how the islands and islanders operate, and this was a fabulous opportunity to see one of the more remote areas. Sea Lion Island (atlases out please) lies to the South of East Falkland – below Bleaker, and the last land before the Antarctic (apart from the tiny landmass of Beauchene 30km further on). Jenny runs the lodge in season, which is just about to start – and she looks after birdwatchers, photographers, National Geographic teams, and general tourists, sharing her deep knowledge of the wildlife and the island. Sea Lion island is 5 miles long, and 1 mile wide at its broadest point. It is flat as a pancake, and the wind whistles over it. Her team, who all live in houses on one corner of the island, are her three chilean house staff – cooks and cleaners – and Maurice the handyman, who grew up on New Island, and has not lost the art of turning his hand to anything (as indeed is true of most islanders - I imagine as our grandparents or great grandparents were able to do, and as we now so clearly cannot.) These area a group of impressively unflappable and self reliant people. They must also have fair level of tolerance rto live so closely together with no one else on the island. They all arrived to eat with us, along with Felippo, an italian professor, who has spent the 4 months of the Elephant Seal breeding season here for the last 17 years. He and his wife Simone work at a university in the US and are world experts on Elephant Seals. Fascinating dinner conversation. He recognised every seal, knew its age and its history. Elephant Seals live to around 20, and come back to the same spot every year.
The island is lucky to have a spring fed by rain water running off the sandstone –and they have a generator, a wind turbine, and a massive veg patch. Everything is home made, and nothing is wasted. On one side of the island, they have recently installed a winch lift from a deep cove, allowing goods to be delivered in by ship – and there is also a grass landing strip outside the lodge for FIGAS tiny aircraft, which run rather like taxis round here.
So as soon as we could, we were off to the beaches; we could see the colony of Gentoos from the lodge windows, so we were after more impressive fare today…from September onwards, the Sea Lions and Elephant Seals start to return to breed. We found three huge males – perhaps 5m long, great blubbery masses (they stay on land for 3 months now until they mate, and eat nothing, losing around half their body weight, so we were seeing them at their largest). But huge as they were, they still had those adorable seal eyes, and a rare gentle look about them as they waved their flippers at us –although when they trumpeted, the reason for the name became clear -and of course their trunk – like noses, which only the males display, and only after 5 years or so. Soon, the fighting will start amongst the males – the scars were very evident, and Jenny reported watching Seals rearing up, dripping with blood. There were also a couple of females – half the size, beige in colour, and much more pretty and seal like. The next day, we found double the number, and Jenny assures us that harems of 60-70 females will appear. There is a birthing pool across the island, and this is where the Orcas come later in the year – they have two pods which return annually, of 4 and 5 whales – and they take 4 or 5 seal pups each year. You may remember the National Geographic documentary.
On the other side of the island, the Sea lions were also arriving – we found two lying in the massive tussock grass. These are the chaps to be wary of – they are great solid creatures, with necks as thick as the trunk of a man, and they can reputedly move as fast as a galloping horse if necessary. It is extremely inadvisable to get between a Sea Lion and the sea. Felippo had stories of seal bites, which would certainly concentrate the mind – but then he is attaching satellite receivers to them….
The tussock grass is vital to knot together the dunes, and it gives the island a tropical look. Davies, sailing past in the 16th century, reported that palm trees covered the island, and from a distance, it does take on a Caribbean look – until you put a toe in the water..
What else did we see? Peregrine Falcons, hundreds of Upland Geese as normal, but also the rarer Ruddy Headed Goose. And around 20 Striated caracaras, along with a sole pair of Crested Caracaras. These birds are impressive birds of prey, with a no nonsense beak and set of claws. Their local name is Johnny Rook – they are magpies by nature – curious collectors of shiny things, and spectacular thieves. These are sizeable, powerful birds who actively seek you out and watch you like a spy. You are ill advised to turn your back on them – they often wallop you on the back of the head, just because they can. They are wily, and hunt in pairs or packs. They eat the Upland Geese – these are birds as big as a large British Goose – bringing them down between two of them. And packs of 6 or so will bring down and eat a sheep. Maurice had tales of watching the drama as a boy, where Caracaras group, split and select a sheep before downing it.
We didn’t want to leave Sea Lion island – it was a heavenly escape from the reality of 24 hour army camp - and we were nearly stranded; the heli is sadly not there for our pleasure , and only picks us up on duty routes, so when it was called to stand in for the Air Sea Rescue heli, we had to wait for a few more hours – not a real sacrifice, although a slight heart flutter, as we were hosting a dinner party that night, and arrived home about an hour before the guests!
Pottering days now, before Phoebe and I head back for the school run – first day back Wed 7th. It will be another world.