After the exercise on the base, Rob McGill had agreed to escort a group of us - around 25 in total - to Steeple Jason for the day. This is a huge privilege - it is a two hour heli flight, and the helis stay with us for the day - it is too far to travel back. We were pleased that the pilots would actually get to visit their port of call, and it was good to have the opportunity to chat.
Steeple Jason is the furthest west of the westerly islands - fabulous rocks pointing in ridges skywards, and massive tussoc around its fringes. The american conservation association built a lodge a few years ago, primarily for scientists to use, and we flew over colonies of gentoos, and through swirls of giant peterls, soaring and fishing, and landed beside the lodge.The island is uninhabited; we were the only visitors.
From there, magellanics and gentoos could be seen; gentoos were climbing gingerly across the rocks, sliding and jumping into the sea, trying to time their leap with the rise of the waves. Usually seen walking slowly from beach to sea, leaping into the water looked at the very least unusual!!
Rob led us through the biggest tussoc we have yet encountered; the children disappeared completely, and we all found ourselves in underground grass tunnels at some point. When we reached the sea, the colony of albatross opened up in front of us; miles (about 3 miles long) of albatross, a nest every metre, one grey fluffy chick sitting atop each mud castle, parents parading around, fetching food, protecting. Albatross are the purest white, the softest feathered birds, serene and unafraid. Magical birds. Elegant and majestic when they soar above you; never seeming to take a wingbeat.
Their wings are however vast, and the process of taking off is perhaps not their finest hour. A bit Charlie Chaplin actually. Where we have seen albatross before, they have chosen to nest on hillsides and cliffs; places which afford a little lift (I am no physics master, but once you have seen that wingspan, you appreciate the need for a little help). On Steeple Jason, the largest colony in the world (estimated at 170,000 breeding pairs), they have inexplicably chosen to live on a flat plain. To counter this, they have established 'runways' (a few gently sloping sites at the edges of the colony). For take off, they plod (slap slap slap go the big grey feet) up the hill, turn, and run like h**l. It is not elegant, majestic or serene, and as they don't have a queueing system, it often ends in emergency braking. It is fabulous and funny to watch. The babies sit happily, grey fluff with big black beaks, which knock in a drum beat at you if you walk too close. They are just starting to moult; they fledge by April - I wonder if we will see them before they go.
We could have spent days watching - we sat under the runway and took photos for quite a while. Further into the colony, rockhoppers were sharing the nesting site, and cormorants mixed in quite amicably.
How priviliged we feel. This is one of the special places in the world, and we had it to ourselves for the day.
Back to the lodge for lunch, penguin watching (the rockpools were bright pink - the colour of penguin pooh) and then home - a fabulous heli flight across beautiful lakes and mountains, moorland and coastline.We won't forget today.