Guardians of the South Atlantic

It’s always hard to communicate what life in the Falkland Islands is like so when I come across something that helps, I like to pass it on:

I’ll be leaving Sea Lion Island shortly, so you can expect an update on that soon but, for now, enjoy this helpful look at life in the Falklands.

Marooned once more

Following our much anticipated trip last year (and with our ever-indefinite decision about the length of our time in these islands), Han and I had been keen to use some of the Summer to return to one place that we saw as being particularly special. So it was that New Island beckoned once more! New Island is the most Westerly of the Falklands archipelago and is therefore subject to some of the roughest seas, the most interesting geography, some alternate wildlife and some of the more fascinating history (as mentioned in our previous post). Unlike most of the other inhabited outer islands, New Island is not a working sheep farm. Instead, it is owned and run by the New Island Conservation Trust primarily as a nature reserve and scientific research station, with the occasional bit of tourism from a few passing expedition vessels and itinerant islanders like ourselves.

We’re lucky to have been to New Island once before and we’re very glad to have had the opportunity to return as it isn’t always that easily done. The short airstrip means you can only land 2 people at once and only on a north westerly wind at a decent speed. This is understandable as the frighteningly short landing is a separate skill for the very talented pilots here.

As with much of the Falklands, in some ways it is hard to explain what makes New Island so special. In part, the proximity of the Settlement Rookery must play a part. This is a significant and very scenic colony of Rockhopper penguins (with the odd Macaroni thrown in), Black-browed Albatross and Imperial Cormorants set to a battered yet beautiful coastline with an atmospheric bowl providing shelter. It’s an easy place to wile away many hours, as we have done on almost every day that we’ve spent there. Visiting at this particular time of year adds an extra affiliation for the natural world as the annual breeding cycle is well underway and it seems that, in the chaos and gloom of so much of the world today, new life is to be found thriving here at every turn.

The Settlement Rookery is a short and picturesque walk from the small settlement in the harbour on New Island, which in itself holds its own charms at all times of the day.

New Island differs to some of the other islands in other ways, too. It is rare among the Falklands archipelago for hosting a colony of Southern Fur Seals (more numerous on South Georgia, but 3 years in and that island still eludes me). Much like the Rockhopper penguins that they share the cliff with, Southern Fur Seals astound you with their ability to scale cliff sides and cheerfully reside in the most awkward (if pretty) of locations. As if this wasn’t enough, the geography of this Western end combine with the lofty height to allow you to view both New Island and the South Atlantic, either for many miles if you wish or simply for a few hundred metres to observe the seals in their own environment. It’s hard not to allow such sights to force a new perspective on captive animals.

If the main settlement at New Island is a little cosmopolitan for you, the Conservation Trust have alternative accommodation available. The Northern end of the island, accessed by a one hour off-road drive, plays host to the honeymoon suite; a scaled back hut with a bed, a camping stove a toilet and an old outdoor mesh-sided meatsafe turned nesting site for some very protective Striated Caracaras. Striated Caracaras (local name the Johnny Rook) may well be one of the rarest birds of prey in the World, but not on New Island they’re not; it has something like 70% of the world population. The hut is conveniently located in the midst of a significant Gentoo penguin colony, which isn’t the first time a hut has evidently been erected here for the penguins.

The sad fact about this is that, while we were spending time here to admire them, those staying here previously were here to exploit them, boiling them down in trypots to extract penguin oil. Some devastating accounts exist of this most gruesome of industries.

I wonder whether our predecessors admired the dramatic promontory that extends out to sea and overlooks the albatross colony and the Rockhoppers that walk over a mile to nestle alongside them.  This unique location allows the closest of encounters with the most majestic birds to breed on these shores. I wonder, too, whether they were able to appreciate the stunning beach and the sealions that patrol there hoping to take penguins for themselves.

Penguin oil and sealing missions aside, I made reference to New Island’s unique history in my previous post about the island. In chronological and curiosity order, the highlights are firstly that New Island was the scene of the dramatic and mindboggling theft of Captain Charles H Barnard’s ship by the passengers of the wrecked Isabella that he was in the process of rescuing, leaving him and four others to unenviable deaths in 1813. Barnard defied the odds and survived two winters in the Falklands before his rescue, allowing him to record his tale in his memoirs Marooned (and for David Miller to then give us the big picture in The Wreck of the Isabella, both well worth a read if you can get your hands on them). Barnard’s achievement is commemorated in the Barnard Museum Building (the supposed site of his hut, following some questionable historical research) and, most memorably, in a recent sell-out lecture I gave to the Historic Dockyard and Museum in Stanley.

A little over one hundred years later, New Island was chosen as the site of the Falklands’ only land-based whaling station before it was moved to the more horrifically productive waters of South Georgia. Still, some remains of the station are to be found and walking among it gives an odd feeling of just how different the site would have been.

Ironically, New Island’s whale population turned out in force to be seen from the cliffs as if in some demonstration of defiance at the Island’s morbid past:

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Finally, as if to truly show the global extent of the twentieth century, World War II saw unfortunate lookouts posted on the hilltops of New Island to give warning of the perceived Japanese threat. Erroneously named in several publications as one of Barnard’s lookouts, the WWII lookout hut still exists and the view has undoubtedly changed little since.

All in all, the human impacts on this island are almost as memorable as the natural. Nowhere is this more significant than The Settlement. To those who haven’t visited the Falklands, it is difficult to explain the Settlements. They are often composed of one main house with several peripheral farm buildings, but they do vary in size. On the outer islands and on East and West Falklands, they have been historically isolated but often remain the centre of all human activity for that island or farm (remembering that farms in the Falklands can be over 200,000 acres of purely grassland and fences). The settlements are almost all located on the coast as this was the only option for transport to and from the farms for goods and wool respectively. New Island harbour’s most frequent visitors, however, are a pod of Peales Dolphins that grace the azure waters in front of the jetty, offering an enviable view while you have a cup of tea on the dockside.

Han was lucky enough to borrow a wetsuit and slip into the nippy waters for what I can only imagine was a pretty special swim:

As with our last trip to New Island, we ended up spending several extra days on the end of our trip as the weather decided to do us a favour and not allow flights to get in. On many other trips, this would have added stress to a holiday but with two extra days on the island with little other option, it’s easy to relax into it and enjoy whatever New Island throws on you:

Sadly, the time had to come for us to depart but, either because we know all of the FIGAS pilots or because they enjoy New Island trips as much as we do, we were in for an impromptu tour of the Western cliffs at low level before some aerial whale watching off the coast, finally rounding to unpopulated Staats Island on our way home to admire its dramatic coastline and see the introduced guanaco (a form of South American wild llama) population that has resided there since the 1930s.

Our thanks go to Alec and Giselle (the Wardens of New Island) and the New Island Conservation Trust for allowing us to visit the island and for embedding this remote corner of the South Atlantic firmly in our hearts.

Time on remote islands, it seems, can become addictive. I’d advise anyone offered the opportunity to spend any time on South Atlantic islands to seize it, as you’ll see I did in my next post.

Absence makes the blog grow fonder

I know, I know. We’ve had a much anticipated second marooning on New Island with its standard deluge of experiences and yet Pengoing South is oddly silent on the matter. The fact is, I’m currently living on Sealion Island for 4-6 weeks and the internet is relayed here at a rate that can only be described as irritating. Expect absence from the blog until well into February, I’m afraid, but there will follow a burst of beauty in both written and photographic form. I had hoped to give you a taste of things to come, but I am unable to upload a single photograph on the internet here, so that should give a pretty damning explanation of the blog’s silence. Still, good things come to those who…

UPDATE: I figured out a way to upload A picture!dsc_6316 small

Old favourites, new favourites

I’ve been making a conscious effort to take more pictures lately as I feel they do a better job of communicating the experience we have here (which, I guess, is the purpose of this blog though perhaps I should have defined that several years ago). By now, regular followers will be getting more familiar with some of the spots we frequent so it may come as no surprise that we’ve been visiting a number of them recently. Still, thanks to an ongoing agreement between Falkland Island Government and a Canadian medical school, Canadian doctors undergoing GP training and wanting to experience remote medicine are cycled down to us here in the Falklands. This is a mutually beneficial set-up that has the added bonus of giving us Canadian doctors every few months who seem to be, without exception, lovely and outgoing people to hang out with. Inevitably, Han and I end up showing the doctors to some of our favourite spots and we build up great relationships with many of them.

Socially, the Falklands populations is already very transient and the small community (and distances) in town often mean that things run in fast-forward. We’ve had friends on 3 month contracts (and sometimes less) who we met here years ago that we are still in touch with and consider ourselves to be very close. So it is with the Canadians; they’re only here for a a couple of months but we get to know them very well in that time and we miss them a lot when they’re gone and the process starts again with the next one. On the plus side, we have many stops that we can make on any Canadian touring we do in the future. The reason I mention all of this is two-fold; partly because it gives others an insight into how such close relationships can develop so quickly in small communities and partly because we’ve recently been entertaining our latest batch of lovely Canadians with trips in the local area:

We’ve encouraged all of the visiting doctors to get out and see the Islands (not that they need much encouragement) and we try to help them wherever possible with this as it’s great for us to show off our home and, as I’ve mentioned before, it helps us to be reminded about how lucky we are to live here. As it’s summer and the wildlife is blooming, we took a day trip to take the GPs (and a visiting medical student – another bunch of lovely people we sometimes get here) out to one of my favourite places in the whole of the Falkland Islands: Whale Point. After negotiating some early access to the spot (off-road tracks sometimes don’t open until well into Summer to prevent damage to the land or disturbing the lambing ewes) we were able to take two cars on a day-trip from Stanley, driving about 45 minutes to the turn-off for the 80 minute off-roading trip to get there. We pass an old farmhouse on the way, which has a slight Wild West look to the surroundings:

When we reach Whale Point, our usual trip is divided into three parts. Firstly, we drive down to the beach to admire the whale bones that give the area its name and spend time with the gentoo penguin colony (which is particularly cute this time of year):

Next up, we drive down the long, grassy coastline to see East Falklands’ most accessible elephant seal colony. These animals are always good to see, being largely very docile around people and sharing memorable looks with their giant eyes. It was great to see the colony thriving with so many young pups and adults present this year. Many of them are huge, noisy creatures but there’s also the occasional cutey:

Finally, we round our tour off with a trip to what remains of the St Mary. She’s a shipwreck with an interesting history, summarised well on the website of the Historic Dockyard and Museum in Stanley here so I particularly like to be able to visit the wreck and  give some context to it. Luckily, most people by this point are already well aware of how much I like to ramble on about history so this comes as no surprise to them on arrival.

Whale Point is a trip that has so much of the Falklands about it: wide open landscapes, historic farming apparatus, interesting off-road driving, ample wildlife, whale bones and a shipwreck with a unique history. It’s a great summary of so many trips we’ve taken here and we look forward to more Whale Point days out before the summer ends. Sadly we’ve said goodbye to our latest Canadians and we’ll miss them a great deal, they’ve left big boots for their successor to fill. We’re heading into the Christmas season and things get manic around here with a jam-packed social calendar including many meals, the Boxing Day races and other events going on but we’ve just returned from another extended stay on New Island so I’ll devote a significant post to that as soon as the many photos have been sorted and laboriously uploaded. To all of our friends, family and any other random blog followers across the World, Han and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a great New Year. We’re not sure what our next year will bring, but we’re excited by the options that the Falkland Islands seem to so often offer us.

Never predictable

I’ve talked before about the unusual opportunities that living on a remote island throws up and how we’ve been unable to predict just what we’ll end up doing here from one week to the next. As we move into December and the madness of the Falklands summer, it’s interesting to look back on November and see what we’ve been up to this month. I often list some of the wildlife encounters that are becoming far too normal for us these days, like our recent trip to Volunteer Point on East Falkland:

Among the ridiculous amount of social occasions we find ourselves at in this small community, November was host to the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Ball and remembrance ceremonies that I covered two posts ago so won’t discuss in length here:

The social aspect of the Falklands also throws up some experiences for other members of the community here; poor Milo had a small crowd for this year’s much-needed shearing that he had, before some visitors wanted to help with transporting him to his next temporary home (we lend Milo out to help with people’s lawns as most people in government housing aren’t provided with a lawnmower, obviously):

The islands do have a very transient population, which has some benefits and some problems associated with it. For us, having so many people come and go on the islands means we make friends from all over the World and they often make us get out and do things that are new to them (and, sometimes, us). So it was with the month just gone when our Canadian friend Christine celebrated her Birthday far from home – she’d seen that the pool here had an aqua run so as a surprise, we rented the pool for her, with mixed success:IMG_6694The improving weather does change things up a little in a place that can see some real extremes. It’s blessed a couple of events recently; our friends Davide & Marinella got married in a touching ceremony in the sunshine on Bertha’s Beach (as it was their wedding, I don’t feel it’s my place to post photos of it on a public blog so I’ve included a representative picture of the cake that our friend James made for them – it was stunning, personal and uniquely Falklands, just as their Wedding day was). Hannah also had the opportunity to join a Football Association medic to keep an eye on the FA Representative team that was flown down to play the Stanley and Mount Pleasant teams in a football match. Football’s pretty boring so I’ll say no more about that, but it meant a lot to some people here. The improving weather keeps us busy, both getting out taking advantage of the outdoors but also we need to take advantage of some indoor spaces too:

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Get busy! Them vegetables won’t grow themselves!

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Soaking up the sun

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Han with the FA Representative team

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Davide & Marinella’s cake, made by our friend James

For me, the final major thing that November brought was my first foray into the lecturing scene here. Since arriving, we’ve attended a number of lectures run by a number of organisations (the Historic Dockyard and Museum, the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute/SAERI and Falklands Conservation mostly). It’s not something we did much in the UK, but we’ve seen some really interesting talks on everything from penguins to photography to specific boats (the Ilen project I mentioned before in a post). With my thoroughly geeky interest in all things historical and Falklands, I’d been meaning to contribute to this scene and the time I’ve gained by leaving teaching meant I was able to offer my services to a sold-out Museum to give my first lecture on the unique story of the Isabella and the Nanina (if you’re intrigued, buy and read the Wreck of the Isabella by David Miller). I enjoyed giving something back to the community we’ve come to embrace and I didn’t get any negative feedback so here’s hoping people enjoyed themselves. I’ve got another sold-out talk coming up this week and a few more to be given next year, so perhaps I’ve discovered a productive way to channel my inner geek.

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Powered by tea – setting up the talk (it was full to capacity, honest)

The lectures, I guess, run alongside my new-found Falkland Islands Tourist Board accredited Tour Guide status (used so far for voluntary tours for visitors that we know), so I’m carving out something of a niche in the highly limited sector of ‘geeks talking about old things here’ but you never know where things will lead and I’m enjoying myself so I’ll just keep on with my ramblings.
Here’s to seeing what else the Summer brings and, if you hadn’t already guessed, the moral of this post is simple; take that risk, move somewhere different and you never know what life will bring. You might even end up walking a friendly sheep on a lead. If you’re lucky.

Up on top

In 2012, two good friends and I (ably supported by Han) completed the UK Three Peaks Challenge for charity, summiting the highest peaks in each of Britain’s 3 mainland nations in one day. We’ve also been up Snowdon and Scafell Pike at other times and spent quite a few other weekends out on the mountains. Imagine my embarrassment, then, at realising that 3 years had gone by and I still had not been to the summit of the islands’ highest peak. Mt Usborne (705m) lies pretty central on East Falkland, which makes it not that easy to access as most of the Islands are utterly devoid of the footpaths and country roads that make the North Wales mountains or the Lake District peaks so comparatively easy to get to. Luckily, I’ve recently given up teaching and that has meant that my Sundays are now my own (which has definitely not been the case for the past 6 years). The Rambling Club here on the Falklands meets on a Sunday so I was recently able to join them for their Mt Usborne and Five Tarns walk. Seven and a half hours of walking in the strongest winds I’ve ever walked in didn’t make for the easiest day but I was glad to get it done and I’m looking forward to repeating it on a slightly nicer day:

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We’ve also been enjoying showing more visitors to the islands some of our favourite places and some of our favourite companions, like recent trips to Bertha’s Beach to see the nesting gentoo colony:DSC_4253

More interestingly, we recently ran another Kidney Island trip; chartering a boat for the 30 minute trip out to Kidney Island, where you can take a rib ashore and traverse the sealion-infested wild tussock grass to the rockhopper colony, before spending the evening on the beach watching the 200,000 sooty shearwaters return to their burrows on the island. Photos don’t do justice to the sight of the sky filled with these sizeable birds, but I tried:

Three years in and we’re both glad that we still take up these opportunities rather than shying away from repeat trips – like all places, the Falkland Island experience is what you decide you want it to be. Remote island living, I think, needs people to be outgoing and adventurous in their mindset. The benefits of having that mentality, for us, are that we get to see and experience some very memorable moments like those above.

Remembering

It will have been (rightly) hard to escape the fact that yesterday marked 100 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front and elsewhere. It is also hard to escape the fact that the Falklands has seen blood spilled on its soil in conflict in living memory. I often say to visitors that you need to understand 1982 to understand the Falklands today. It sounds obvious, as history ultimately explains everything about our World today, but this is more pronounced and specific to one key event here. The effects of 1982 are wide-ranging and long-standing, but on a day like Remembrance Sunday, the conflict once again casts its light over the Falklands. The commemorations in Europe and elsewhere have received a lot of press coverage so for those wondering how this occasion passed in the Falklands Islands, the annual traditions were complimented by a local campaign.

Each year on Remembrance Sunday, a military parade makes its way to the Cross of Sacrifice overlooking Stanley Harbour, where the forces and civilians gather in as much of a crowd as a small population can muster. The Governor then begins the wreath-laying ceremony and the names of all those from the Falklands who have died fighting in major conflicts of the 20th century are read out before the Victory guns (two small calibre guns on Victory Green) and a bugler signal the start and end of the two minute silence. Wreaths are also laid at the many other memorials dotted around the Islands.

This year, I was privileged to be part of the There But Not There campaign, helping my students at the secondary school to research and write up whatever we could find about the 22 men from the Falklands who died on active service during WWI. As a result of this project, it was discovered that Robert Greenshields Douglas had been missed out and, for the first time, his name was read out alongside the others on the Roll of Honour at the service. The rest of the information is on display in the excellent Museum in Stanley and it was astonishing to see that such a small population lost such a high percentage of its men for those four years and after (many of them paying their own way to Britain). The There But Not There campaign also brought down some striking figures of WWI Tommies to represent these lost souls and their presence added a powerful backdrop to the commemoration. The photos below are from the British Forces South Atlantic Islands collection, as I tend not to take photos at solemn occasions like this; the presence of a ‘selfie stick’ at the memorial going quite a long way to proving pretty much everything wrong with the 21st century.

Image may contain: one or more people, sky and outdoor

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Credit: BFSAI Falklands

The only hindrance to the day was the fact that a multi-faith or secular approach was not adopted in this diverse society. Sadly, there was little escaping the Christian insistence on dominating occasions that should not be motivated by religion and I can only hope that the Falklands and other nations take a more progressive approach to this in future years.

Spring Garland

As the years roll by here we get used to the annual cycle, largely noticeable as a result of nature’s decisions and whims. For example, the Falklands’ national flower (the Pale Maiden) emerges to let everyone know that things are getting brighter (although not all IMG_5996of them are fully out and showing themselves off yet, obviously). Similarly, it gets to that time of year again when Milo, our beloved sheep, is showing signs that things are hotting up for him and it’s high time he had a trim before the o-zone depleted sunshine starts to rain down on him. Sheep aficionados will be pleased to note that he’s booked in for a trim this Sunday (potentially more on that story later). IMG_5888As well as Milo’s annual undertaking, Han is gearing up for another cost-saving experiment on the tomato and potato front as we prep our IMG_5801polytunnel for the upcoming shiny season. In addition, there was a significant cruise ship in today, marking the start of the tourism season that brings c.60,000 visitors to the islands each Summer and contributes significantly to the economy of the island (and, might I add, the queues in the Post Office and Bank).

These cyclical goings-on are becoming part of the norm for us now in our 4th year of living here and add to a very tangible sense of anticipation for the incoming Summer (the finest time of year to be here). We’ve not locked down our plans for the Summer yet, but we’re excited to take full advantage of the increased access to Camp and the mildly more predictable weather. Emphasis on the word ‘mildly’ there.

All of that being said on the routine front, we are always keen to take advantage of new opportunities and followers of the blog will note how many new experiences we’ve been lucky enough to experience. This year, we say goodbye to two friends leaving the Islands with something that had become something of a Birthday tradition for one of them – the Falklands Treasure Hunt! This game saw randomly-allocated teams charging around Stanley hunting all kinds of items, people, animals, photos and answers. As a member of last year’s winning team, I had a proud title to defend, as I was keen to highlight:

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Winners’ badge and cup from the last Hunt

Devastatingly, neither Han nor I were to place in the top 3 this year, which we can only put down to a mis-count or the fact the judges knew I would, admittedly, be insufferable with yet another victory to my name.

In order to help the mourning process as the loss of my treasured title, I wanted to achieve SOMETHING over the half-term week. Some regular Pengoing South addicts might recall that our trip to Saunders last year involved a return Islander journey with a view or two to admire:

The iconic Lady Elizabeth on the right is a daily site for us and I’ve seen it up close on several occasions, but the other wreck is the Garland, beached across the water from the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin. She was built in Liverpool in 1832 but in 1900 she put into Stanley with damage caused to her bottom plates by broken jars of acid. After a survey she was condemned and later towed to Darwin to be used as a coal hulk. I’d only seen her from afar and she’s not easy to get close to on land. There was only one thing for it:

As a once-keen whitewater kayaker, it was excellent to get back in a kayak again (albeit a sea kayak) so I look forward to doing more kayaking here when I can. It’s just a shame no whitewater exists among all this peat. The Falklands doesn’t have EVERYTHING, after all.

Open up, Sealion!

One key to the post-holiday blues is a pre-emptive strike. After 6 weeks off the islands, we thought it might be worth reminding ourselves of some of the reasons why we love this place so much so, before we left, we sent a message to Micky at Sealion Island; one of the jewels in the Falklands’ crown. Last year we were staying at Sealion Island on the first weekend of their tourist season, so we thought we’d begin a new tradition and open up their season with them again on the long weekend that is lovingly created by Peat Cutting Monday (the first Monday in October is set aside for this Falklands unique holiday).

Sealion Island isn’t a cheap weekend away, what with the cost of a chartered FIGAS Islander flight (£168 return each) but for the experiences you get there and the excellent hospitality, it’s always worth it. If you’re into your bird life then all of the islands hold a great deal in store for you (almost all photos by Han on this post):

Interestingly, the Rockhopper penguins also return to the islands after their winter away on the same date each year and it coincided with our visit (the 29th September) so we did come across 2 of them. They steadily increase in number as the days go on.

Sealion Island is also home to a huge colony of one of the funniest and oddest animals here; the elephant seals. The Elephant Seal Research group have an annual presence on the island (it’s well worth following them on Facebook) and provide a lot of information about the habits of these monsters but this time of year they’re giving birth and the males and gathering them into harems waiting to repeat the (far from elegant) breeding cycle:

The elephant seal pups also attract the orca whales to the island, but we were visiting with our cursed friend Helene. Some people visit Sealion and see the orca every time. Some people visit and only see them some of the time. Our record currently stands at about 50% of our visits. Helene has been 6 times and not seen them once. In fact, they’ve even appeared on the same days as her visit; the morning before she arrived and the afternoon after she left. She’s cursed, so we knew we wouldn’t be seeing them this visit but our consolation was that it gets a little bit funnier every visit she makes. Still, there were other treats to see:

We look forward to returning to Sealion again some time (perhaps opening the season next year) but if you ever find yourself here, be sure to add it to your list.

Followers of the blog will know we’ve been to Sealion many a time now. We’ve been extremely lucky to see and do most of what we have wanted to in our time here. We have, however, still got a few more items to tick off the to-do list so watch this space and make sure you’re ticking things off your own to-do list.