For the past six weeks, I have been living on Sea Lion Island at the Southern end of the Falklands archipelago. I’ve posted about our several trips to Sea Lion Island before, always as tourists looking for a relaxing getaway in Summer. We’ve spent up to a week on some of the islands here, but this time things were going to be a little different.
Rum, Whiskey and Brandy Islands (the others in the Sea Lion group)
The house I stayed in, with a lost penguin
Typical driving on Sea Lion Island
Sea Lion Island is an island of just over 2200 acres lying 10 miles South of the mainland East Falkland. It is accessed only by a FIGAS Islander flight of approximately 40 minutes, landing on a clay and gravel airstrip 400 metres long. Unlike almost all of the other inhabited islands of the Falkland group, Sea Lion Island is owned by the Falkland Island Development Corporation, itself owned and run by Falkland Island Government. Micky, the MD of Wild Falklands Limited, leases the Island from FIG and operates it as a National Nature Reserve with hotel lodge-style accommodation. The Falklands criteria for Nature Reserve status are strict, so no sheep or cows can be farmed on the Island (making it almost unique among islands we are able to visit; New Island being the only other one).
Similarly, no cats, rats or mice are present on the island, which means that ground-nesting birds (which the Falklands has in abundance given the almost complete lack of trees for nesting in) can thrive, including the species that are endemic to (only found in) the Falklands: the curious Tussacbirds and the petite Cobb’s Wren. Alongside the bird life, Sea Lion Island hosts three (though sometimes five) species of penguin, a sea lion colony that almost allows it to earn its name and approximately 95% of the Falklands’ elephant seal population (over 1000 individuals). All of this squeezed into a relatively small area means that it’s easy to find exciting wildlife opportunities. Oh yes, and those seals attract two pods of orca whales, made famous by the BBC with a little help from Attenborough for one particular individual’s hunting technique (the BBC didn’t mention it, but she’s ‘Puma’ by name).
The elephant seal population and the orca habits here have been the focus of the tireless and trying work of the Elephant Seal Research Group, who spend their entire day outside come what may to observe, record and analyse the seal population. They’ve been doing this for over 23 years, which I may be correct in saying makes the Sea Lion Island elephant seals the longest continually studied marine mammal population anywhere in the world. The updates provided by their intimate knowledge on their Facebook account are well worth an in-depth look, especially some of their videos. These guys see all of what this island can throw up.
Although we’ve been living on a remote island for some years now, this was to be a different kind of remote island living. East Falklands has an approximate permanent population of 3000, Sea Lion Island: 6. This was to be a life led without keys, a wallet or a phone, with even more limited internet access (a blessing if ever there was one) and (by choice) no television. Stores were all shipped in every 6 weeks (hauled up a gap in the rocks on a trolley), but the lodge had a chef so I was also to live without the need for shopping or cooking for my time there; no great difficulty on this remote island!
My time on the island began earnestly enough, with a day to get myself acquainted with my new role (the environs of which were a far cry from a classroom of teenagers). As if to signal that this was going to be a month of the unexpected, this poor fellow had turned up to moult and was battling the elements on the South Beach:
Facing the elements: wind and sand
Similarly struggling with the weather, stumbling on this young pup that day seemed to herald the thought that ‘you know you’ve been in bed too long when…’
It’s not easy to summarise a six week experience in one post. So much can change and happen in what seems like such a short time. Especially here on small islands, the weather, wildlife and guests are constantly changing. It’s hard to decide if the weather or the guests were more frequent in their turnaround. I have to admit that I had some hesitance about starting to work with so many tourists in such a luxurious setting, as I wondered how many would be frustrating, overly demanding or even ignorant but I was pleased to enjoy meeting so many people from all over the world. Almost without exception, the visitors were worldly, environmentally aware, interesting and interested. I met everyone from an Argentine journalist to a Chilean TV crew right through to British veterans and enjoyed conversing with them all. That was easier said than done in some cases as I was living and working with three lovely Chileans who were very patient with me. Starting from zero Spanish, it’s amazing how much you can learn in such a short space of time when you’re fully immersed in it.
One thing that really came through from that was that so much of what we say and do transcends language and is so very international. If you’ve never lived with people whose first language differs to your own, it’s amazing to see how body language, intonation etc often cut across lingual boundaries – we’re all fundamentally human, with the same ideas, humour and interests but we just happen to use different words sometimes. In the current political climate, it’d be nice if more of the World realised that.
As I mentioned, Sea Lion Island isn’t large. Driving around it each day for tours and in my spare time, it didn’t take long to get to know the island and the various spots that might draw my attention and time. One of those is Rockhopper Point at the West end of the island. Regulars will already be familiar with the charms of the Rockhopper penguin but, with its steep cliffs and insane route in, this is one of the most dramatic penguin rookeries I’ve ever visited:
The rookery, with chicks in a creche. Only a few days after this photo was taken, all of these had either been moved or eaten following sustained attacks
The route up the cliff taken daily by the penguins – insanity!
Every. Single. Day
Alongside the Rockhoppers, there was also one Macaroni to be seen. Despite being the most numerous penguin on Earth (South Georgia, for example, is estimated to have 2.4 million of them) the Macaroni only rarely appears in the Falklands. Always nesting with the Rockhoppers and sometimes hybridising with them, the Macaroni was a little elusive but I did spot it a few times and it was also seen feeding a chick so there was likely, at one point, a hybrid in that creche (a Rockaroni and/or Macahopper, if you will). Still, it was nice to see all 5 species on one island:
The Macaroni wasn’t the only one to be sharing the spot with the Rockhoppers. You’ll see in the photos above that there were also a few Imperial Cormorants nesting with the Rockies. While there were only a few nesting, that didn’t stop several thousand making the point their roosting spot for the evening. Combined with the sun setting in the West, it made for quite a scene each night after dinner:
The cormorant colony, one of my favourite places
Capturing the light
An easy sunset to watch
The point is also home to the memorial to HMS Sheffield. She was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile 40 miles off the coast of Sea Lion Island during the 1982 conflict and the cross lines up with the point of impact (she later sank while being towed to safety). Sadly, twenty men died on board. It’s a poignant as well as beautiful spot:
A Striated Caracara takes advantage of the spot
The 1982 link turned out to be one of the few things that were known for certain about Sea Lion Island’s history so, as something of a Falklands historian, I took it upon myself to start gathering and writing up what we could find out. Soon enough, random historical documents began arriving addressed to me on the flights coming in and not too long after I’d produced a short booklet for Micky to display in the lodge. It’s available here: Sealion Final 02-2019 if you’re particularly interested in the social history of the islands. Given the stories outlined behind them, it was an honour to have one of my duties being to tidy the two graves found on the island.
Sea Lion Island is open from October (each year it has become something of a tradition for us to open the season with Micky) through to March and there’s something different going on at all times of the year as the annual breeding cycles take place. During my stay, the elephant seals were done breeding but had appeared on the beaches to moult and spent most of the day trying to warm up to help the process along. In the evenings, however, they were a little more active and the adolescent males were often to be found sparring to improve their skills ready for any fights come breeding season:
A Mexican stand-off!
The elephant seals are slightly unusual as they breed October/November, but pretty much everything else was on a Summer cycle and so the islands were alive with offspring almost everywhere you looked:
Juvenile black-crowned night heron
Gentoo chicks chasing their parent for food; ‘the chick chase’
Imperial Cormorants with chick
Falkland Skua on eggs
Kelp Goose chicks
Of particular interest on this front were the sea lions that so kindly lent their name to the island, as the males were fiercely territorial and could often be seen fighting to defend their harem. Thankfully, their colony was below a short cliff so there was no possibility of getting much closer to the action (not that I think I would have taken it):
Scars of battle
Testosterone levels were high!
The cause: a female sea lion away from the colony
They weren’t the only impressive predators to be found on the island:
Dark portrait, short-eared owl
Short-eared owl hunting
Striated caracara in flight
Red-backed/Variable Hawks, Peregrine Falcons (seen several times but sadly, no photos), both types of caracara and short-eared owls all made me look up and pay attention to the bird life that was surrounding me. With so many people coming to visit the islands for the bird life, it was almost inevitable that I would gain much more knowledge about the other birds to be found there and it was surprisingly interesting to spend more time learning about the birds that so often surround us here. I’m not a twitcher, but it’s easy to see why they choose to come to the Falklands:
Black-crowned night herons
Southern giant petrel
As if the island during the day wasn’t giving me enough to walk around for, quite a few nights allowed me to get out and see skies like I’ve never been lucky enough to witness before. Being so far South and so far from light pollution, I couldn’t help but practise my night shots:
The house I stayed in
Finally, it wouldn’t be a trip to an island here without a few extra penguins thrown in for good measure, right? I mean, it’s only fair that the photos here reflect the time spent there:
Optical illusion: how many penguins?