Thank goodness I take so many photos. They help bring me back to the more sensory experiences of the places we have been, especially when the places are as unusual as the Falkland Islands. A lot of the time I can actually remember how I composed the photo and how I was feeling when I took it. The first zodiac ride was not something I had been looking forward to. See anxiety: boats of all sizes as noted in the previous post.
Learning how to layer the gear for maximum effect, and remembering so much new information added to the zodiac learning curve. In order to not sweat profusely we had to put on everything but the jacket, life vest and boots, then walk from two floors up and halfway the length of the ship to the area closest to the marina, from where we launched, and finish getting dressed there. Our room key, which was also our identity card, was inserted into a ready-made, see-through pocket on the sleeve of our jacket. This was one of the hardest things to remember because we had to use it on its own much of the time in between excursions. God forbid you should walk all the way to the launching point, having forgotten your card in the stateroom! The card had a scanning code on it that they used to scan you off and back on board with each excursion—no one was left behind.
The gear was awkward and heavy, but very, very practical, and of course, attractive. The zodiacs held 10 of us per excursion, not including the crew member/naturalist at the helm. There was a very precise method of boarding the zodiac, which was different when boarding from the ship, because you were stepping down into the zodiac, rather than stepping up from the water’s edge. I was fine boarding from the ship’s marina, but for some reason the crew just didn’t quite grasp where my centre of gravity was–being very short on one end. I could never hoist myself, and the heavy, awkward gear, up onto the edge of the zodiac while wading in water and they always had to help me. It was not a pretty sight—think beached whale.
For most of us the first real awareness of the Falkland Islands was during the war in 1982. History recap: the war was because Argentina wanted to take over the running of the islands, but the 3,000 inhabitants wanted to continue under British rule. The Brits won. Our first three stops were not to the capital, Stanley, but to some of the other islands of the archipelago, the first being New Island. Given it was also our first excursion, it was fortunate the launch and landing to shore were both on calm waters.
Wikipedia will tell you that the terrain in the Falklands is ‘rugged’. They do not lie. What isn’t rocky and steep is covered in Tussoc(k) grass, which provides a habitat for many smaller animals. The tussock was at least knee high and taller. It had been gently raining that afternoon so everything was wet, including the rocks and tussock. We landed in King George Bay and had to walk across the island to an area that held an Albatross community. The naturalists who were younger and fitter than us had indicated this was a relatively easy walk. Although, thinking back on it, the naturalist who said ‘easy’ did halt just a split second before saying it. Hmmm. We had to walk up hill before we got to the area with the albatrosses. It was not that easy for us, especially me. In fact, the rocks were slippery and the visibility beneath the heavy Tussock was not good and I fell. Fortunately it was a soft landing in terms of breaks or bruising but I can tell you I really felt the twisting and turning for several days afterward.
The Snowy/Wandering Albatrosses have enormous wing spans of 5-6 feet and their chicks take about a year to mature so are huge by the time they leave the nest. In fact they often weigh more than the parents as they have been fed well and are just sitting all the time. Hmmm, note to self… This was a special time of the year to view the nearly mature chicks and in a place that the Naturalists don’t always get to visit. We had arrived early to the Falklands and so were able to take this unplanned excursion on New Island late in the afternoon of arrival.
Those of you who follow my photography @amosthemagicdog on Instagram will know that one of my favourite subjects are the plants, flowers and textures wherever we travel, and especially here at home. So after seeing the albatrosses I was keen to photograph some of the unusual flora on the way back to the zodiac. You have to believe me when I tell you I slept well that night. Dead tired.
I haven’t really highlighted two important facts on the nature of this cruise. It was both a repositioning cruise, and an expedition cruise. The ‘repositioning’ part refers to the start and finish of the trip, beginning in one port (Argentina) and ending in a completely different place, in our case, South Africa. The ‘expedition’ part of the cruise refers to the need for flexibility given weather conditions and wildlife sightings. The weather had deteriorated overnight and so instead of the planned trip further north in the Falklands, the ship repositioned itself in the night to a more sheltered area near Barren Island, and was ready for a fresh excursion the next morning. It was terribly exciting…the first penguins of the trip! Before each excursion the naturalists would talk to us about what we could expect to see at that landing. There was so much information coming into our brains, it was no wonder we were sleeping well.
The objects of our second excursion were Gentoo and Magellenic penguins, Sea Lions, cormorants and other bird life on Barren Island. If you look at the photos and see not much vegetation, you will understand the name. Though, be assured, there was ample life around! The penguins were just adorable and seemed not the least bit afraid of us. We were instructed to keep a five metre (15 feet) distance from them and so it did make photos with an iPhone challenging as these penguins are fairly small. This is where my affinity for photographing animals and their environments helps me. I think close ups of animal faces are wonderful, but they don’t tell you much about the surroundings the animals live in, so I’m actually very happy to get reasonably close to the animals but also able to position them in their surroundings.
The sea lions were the exception to my theory of photography as they were quite dangerous to get anywhere near, so my photos were not great. They were enormous (males between 700-800lbs), growling and aggressive at times, so that you knew standing well back was the best decision, photos or not. That is the large male at the left and his harem of females to the right.
There were remnants of whale bones scattered on the landscape, some nearly as large as my torso. Sadly, there were also remains of baby penguins that did not live to maturity. There were lichens and layers of sea life everywhere. It was all beautiful.
The next morning’s excursion was to Bleaker Island. The weather deteriorated, so rather than a second excursion (thanks to the gods) the Captain moved the ship to the calmer waters of East Falkland Island, near the capital of Stanley. On Bleaker Island we saw more penguins, different to the previous ones. These were called Rock Hopper Penguins. They were so hilarious looking—kind of a mixture of uber-cool and pissed off! Picture the penguins Robin Williams voiced in Happy Feet (Ramon and Lovelace) and you will know what I mean. Nearly all of the penguins we saw were moulting, which is why they were on land and not in the water. While they are moulting they are vulnerable to the cold and wet, so for a few weeks of the year they stand in large communities dropping feathers while the new ones grow in…and they are starving. They can’t fish so they can’t eat. This was another reason we had to respect some distance and not make them feel threatened.
Our first little while on Bleaker Island was a very rude shock. The weather was cold and the headwind was nearing gale force gusts. And then it sleeted. And then it hailed. And then we all turned our backs to the weather like penguins, until it passed. Again, Bleaker was an apt name. We then trudged along on the uneven ground that was thick with long grasses. In hind sight, this was the most difficult excursion of all, but at the time we weren’t sure they all wouldn’t be like this!
The following morning we were moored near Stanley and the ship’s Cruise Director, Capucine, announced they had put together a land excursion for us to take across the bay via bus, to see more rock hopper penguins as well as the rugged terrain. The shock for us was that they are still scouring the area for landmines, planted in the 1982 war. We were not to venture from the well designated path.
After the bus excursion we were allowed to roam around Stanley to get a feeling for the place. It was somewhat like an idyllic English village and we could see why the locals would have wanted it to remain as it is. The archway in front of the church is made from whale bones! (And just by the way, as of 2 April, they still have no COVID-19!) There have to be some rewards for living in one of the remotest parts of the world.
get ready for penguins…