(This is a multi-part article. Be sure to read the entire series of 2023 Antarctic Journal from the beginning of my adventure!)
February is autumn in the Antarctic. Temperatures hover in the 30s; winds are a moderate 30 knots. The starting point for our cruise was Ushuaia, Argentina, a port in summer and ski destination in winter. The town bursts with memorials to the heroes of the Las Malvinas War. About 363 nautical miles east lie the Falklands with memorials to the heroes of the Falklands War. It’s vital to know your audience. Either Las Malvinas or the Falklands; never interchangeable.
Our shipmates were from the UK, Australia, New Zealand, China and Israel with a smattering of French and Dutch. Most of the expedition team (who in just a few days would keep us from drowning) were Canadian and Russian. I focused less on nationality and more on finding other birders. Lucky for me, several serious birders were aboard. So serious, in fact, that one day I had an increasingly tense conversation with another over the differences between Antarctic Prion and Antarctic Petrel. Trust me, this is an important debate to settle.
But it’s all good. Visiting the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Antarctica is all about the wildlife. Certain birds, whales and seals exist nowhere else on earth. They depend on the Southern Ocean’s massive blooms of krill, the most numerous animal on the planet. The krill industry (drugstores and health food shops sell krill oil) is now decimating this resource. It’s unnerving to spot the region’s whales and penguins and know they are headed for an awful fate if krill harvesting is not controlled very soon. This is why I prefer expedition cruises led by marine biologists, geologists and other environmental experts because they help raise awareness about this and similar conservation issues.
It took about a day to reach open ocean via the Beagle Channel (sightings of Magellanic Penguins!) and another two to reach the Falklands. We made our first Zodiac landing of the trip at West Point Island. Zodiac landings are an adventure in themselves, which we soon learned. Our first few were trouble-free. We crossed the island on foot to see colonies of Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguin. The Falklands is home to the biggest Black-browed colonies on earth. I prefer to avoid two things: (1) getting too close to wildlife, especially when they’re raising young, and (2) experiencing a place like the Antarctic from behind a camera lens. After a few shots snapped by phone, I stepped aside for the skilled photographers to experience nature in their way.
Albatross and penguins live comfortably together. By interspersing, they help resist attacks by aggressive gull-like birds called skuas and the hawk-like caracara that lurks in the tussock grass. Rockhopper penguins have the amazing ability to hop up sheer cliffs from the beach to their nests 400 ft above the waves. And they do it sporting a spikey “hairdo.”
Stanley is the Falklands’ only major town and where 90% of the people live. Due to the 1980s war, Margaret Thatcher is everywhere; statues, street names, her face on postcards. We all wisely decided to avoid discussing Thatcher politics. Many found the nearest pub for a pint or two. I scoured the backstreets for local songbirds. My walk was delayed by a dog who lured me into a game of fetch with his rubber dinosaur. Ten minutes passed, 20 minutes. The ship would soon raise anchor. In desperation, I handed the toy off to another tourist. To my knowledge, she is still trapped in a perpetual game of dinosaur toss. But I lost time and missed spotting the islands’ endemic Cobb’s Wren. Next time.
The Falklanders are every bit as friendly as their dogs. It’s a weird life tied to a homeland 8,000+ miles away and outnumbered a million to one by penguins and sheep. Flights in and out occur on Wednesdays & Saturdays. There are about 5 TV channels and satellite subscription brings in 5 more. The local paper carries a rich but compact assortment of social events, political intrigue, sports and crime (mainly DUI). An Amazon order could take months. Yet I sort of envy Falklanders. Carving out a life on a speck of land in the rambunctious Southern Ocean requires strength not often seen in the US. I can’t imagine a Falklander complaining because the barista messed up his coffee order. The Falklanders waved us off with a bit of a mystery. Though we saw close to a million penguins, I can report I saw not one single sheep.