Wednesday morning, and no let up – off on a heli to Saunders Island. One of my favourite places, Bill’s first visit, and I was very excited as we had managed to book the cabin at The Neck for the night. This a three room basic portacabin, equipped with 8 bunk beds, which was dropped in the time of chinooks, on The Neck – a thin strand of sand between two main landmasses where 8,000 plus Gentoos, hundreds of Rockhoppers and Albatross, and a handful of King penguins, live peacefully together . Flying time is around an hour; it is to the west of West Falkland, and the pilots kindly diverted to show Robert San Carlos Water, Ajax Bay, Blue Beach, and various wreck sites. As we approached Saunders, we learned that the Leopard Seal we had heard about the previous day, was still around. These are rare and lonesome creatures, with a bad and arguably fair reputation for aggression and viciousness. It was a leopard seal who killed the BAS diver a couple of year ago in South Georgia, pulling her down under the ice and drowning her at depth; their method of killing prey. Leopard Seals have an ‘s’ shaped snake - like spine movement when swimming, and have triangular, reptilian teeth. I was torn between fascination and the dread of seeing The Neck a gruesome massacre site.
We were dropped on the hillside and collected by David Pole Evans who owns the island. He drove us the couple of miles to the portacabin – a luxury not experienced before – but a necessary one because of our luggage. Once established we set off to the beach and spotted the Leopard Seal at the water’s edge. It had obviously gorged itself and now wanted to sleep, not particularly bothered at our arrival. A Johnny Rook, the curious and fearless local bird of prey, hopped around its head and riled it into a lazy snap which allowed us to see its vicious teeth. We kept a reasonable distance. More Caracaras (rooks) arrived, disgustingly picking at the pooh which was being produced at regular intervals; ragged pieces of penguin skin and fur were clearly visible and irresistible to the hawks. Eventually the seal had had enough and swirled a full 360 degrees on the sand, snapping and flapping. The Johnny Rooks hopped back and returned.
We headed across the beach to watch the Rockhoppers justifying their names by hopping up the cliffs from the sea to their colonies; they leap without resting, on,on. They prefer to live near fresh water and here they hopped up through a small waterfall, following a stream which ran alongside their colony. Whilst Gentoos will stop, watch and sometimes divert when we arrive, Rockhoppers carry on regardless, and we felt very privileged to see them at such close quarters.
Back to the cabin for lunch and to meet up with Bill who had been in town for meetings all morning, and then off to show him the Leopard Seal. It was a David Attenborough moment, sitting on a rock with a Leopard Seal three metres to one side of us, a couple of Rockhoppers in the pool behind us, washing and splashing happily, and a line of Gentoos emerging from the Sea ahead of us. Magical.
Up the cliffs (some more mountain goat - like than others!!) and then round to see the Rockhopper colony from above – nest building, chasing, egg laying, yellow eyebrows waving in the wind. Charming couples huddled together, beaks touching and eyes only for each other. Lone males, running the gauntlet around the colony, squawking, mischievous. And at the edge, a lone Macaroni penguin – Phoebe’s first. Hoorah! They often seem to live with Rockhoppers; possibly confused – there certainly seems to be interbreeding. Macaronis are not so different from Rockies; larger, orange eyebrows instead of yellow, a little fatter, perhaps not so cute – but good to see one here.
And then on to my favourite ..Albatross. Back for the season, committed and caring couples act out the elaborate courtship rituals, beak touching, neck preening, sharing the nest building and the egg sitting. Every time one returns from fishing and they exchange places, the ritual repeats in a reassuring and sophisticated cycle. They too have no fear of humans; landing at your feet, they will carry on regardless, and plod plod past you with their wide grey flat feet. They colonise cliff sides here on Saunders, which allows them to launch elegantly and swoop across the sea. Landing can be a little clumsier which may be why they sit down quickly ; they are not land birds and moving their vast wings without the wind under them always seems to lead to trouble.
Back to the cabin for tea and cakes and to warm up, before heading back to watch the Gentoos come up for the night,
An evening of charades and meatballs. What more..
We had not yet seen Elephant seals during our whistle stop tour, and with a whisper of them at the end of the island, Robert and Alexis headed off early for a couple of hours’ trudge. Phoebe, having seen many elephant seals, saw no reason to exert herself, and Rachel and Juliet were happy with the penguins. So we headed across the other aside of The Neck, finding a number of Leopard Seal Gentoo remains , and a depressing amount of rubbish washed in from the sea. Litter on island here is not an issue, but the huge number of fishing vessels around the shores sadly have no compunction in disposing of their waste overboard. A cold but happy morning revisiting all types of penguins, and discovering some awesome views across the island from the other end of the beach. The adventurers returned successful, having seen mothers and pups hauled out, and we trudged off for one last look at the albatross before home.
David was coming to fetch us, and there was a cruise ship calling that afternoon, which we had not seen before. The Ocean Avior, with 68 on board, anchored off shore and dropped zodiacs to transfer passengers ashore. Just as they set off, the heavens opened, and we watched from our cabin window as they waded in. We felt very privileged to have had the wildlife to ourselves for two days.
Back home to warmth and comfort food – a last supper of chorizo chicken before the Friday flight. We had a fabulous time – wonderful to share such a magical place with friends.