A huge privilege: for 2 nights we were able to visit Steeple Jason, the most north westerly and one of the more remote of all the Falkland Islands, a wildlife sanctuary owned by the Wildlife Conservation Society. What’s more, we had the whole island to ourselves, if we were to ignore (which is quite hard) the countless thousands of Black-browed Albatross and Giant Southern Petrels, amongst many other birds and animals, which normally live here.
First impressions on arrival were created by the 30 – 40 adolescent Striated Caracaras which were set on greeting us. These ‘Johnny Rooks’ are incredibly inquisitive and very playful, wanting to investigate anything new – including us! Once one got used to the fact that at least 15 birds of prey were intent on flying within 2 feet of one’s head, it was an ‘interesting’ experience to walk anywhere – almost like taking a troupe of pets for a walk. Bill even got a number of them flying off with the end of his walking stick – if it had not been attached to him, it would have certainly been stolen; they are the real ‘magpies’ of the South Atlantic.
Having been shown the ropes by Rob and left to our devices by everyone, we walked out to the Albatross colony on the NW point. I believe that it is home to some 170,000 breeding pairs, but even though most of the adults had left there were still thousands of fledglings sat on their nests flexing their wings. One could tell when a gust of wind was coming as a wave of flapping wings rippled across the colony as the chicks made the most of the natural assistance to their physical exercise; so strong was the wind that the few adults present only had to run a few feet to achieve the lift needed for these supreme gliders to get airborne: it was almost surprising that none of the chicks learned to fly ‘by accident’. As we had seen in February, there are many Rockhopper Penguins mixed in with the Albatross; many of them looking decidedly scruffy as they go through their moult.
As the squalls came through, we sought refuge in the tussac grass, getting a real appreciation of the shelter it provides to so many different animals as we kept out of the worst of the wintery showers before fleeing to the comfort of the house – an extremely well appointed building with fantastic views over the local Gentoo colony and of the antics of the penguins getting in and out of the water, almost in the same manner as their Rockhopper cousins.
Thursday started bright and sunny but soon gave way to wintery squalls again, nevertheless we were able to dodge the spots and creep up on some of the gentoos who had sensibly established their colonies in the midst of the tussac grass. Despite almost being blown off the rocks by the wind we also espied a family of fur seals fishing in the kelp. A trip to the island’s neck took us to even more Gentoos – with one of the colonies being sensibly being half-way up the steep slopes to get the most shelter out of the wind and weather but yet more hundreds of them progressing in & out of the sea. Even more thrillingly we were also able to see a mother and young fur seal at very close quarters as they basked in the sun (it was shining at this point!). Further on we thought we had come across another penguin colony but closer inspection revealed it to be 1,000s of Giant Southern Petrels (I guess the fact that there were so many birds in the air should have given the game away sooner!) Seeing some of their fluffy and moulting chicks at fairly close quarters was a true treat as these are usually easily disturbed, as was sitting in the middle of the colony’s runway as the Petrels flew around our heads - not that the birds needed much effort to achieve lift to glide supremely easily around the area, given the rising South Westerly wind. The wind, however, was the harbinger of a storm coming out of the south (which, of course, here means a pretty chilly place) hastening us back to the house just as the elements let loose. Sixteen hours or more of very rough weather followed with the house seemingly wanting to take off as gusts of over 70 mph buffeted us all night - and this is probably significantly underestimating what was the worst weather for some considerable time according in to the locals! What an occasion to choose to abandon oneself on a remote lump of rock!! The scale of the storm was evident as we flew home on Friday, seeing the size of the waves attacking the exposed shores and, tellingly, a number of the offshore international fishing boats sheltering in the lee of Grand Jason.
In all, a hugely thrilling and very privileged opportunity to stay privately in one of this region’s wildlife and scenic jewels.