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.

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