The Falkland Islands Part I: Bittersweet

by matthay44


Some of you who read this blog may already know that for the last month or so I have been based far away in the Falkland Islands, an archipelago nestled in the South Atlantic’s ‘Furious Fifties’, some 300 miles east of Argentina. In the brief moments of free time I’ve had down here I’ve been lucky enough to explore different parts of the country and interact with some of its remarkable wildlife. But the more I learn about this place, the more I realise how fragile it is and how, despite its isolation, it is suffering from many of the same problems that plague the rest of our planet; climate change, over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and habitat fragmentation.

Admittedly, that is a fairly intense and sombre note to start on, so before we get into to the nitty-gritty let’s take a step back and discuss instead the islands’ most famous ambassadors; a group of flightless aquatic birds from the family Spheniscinae, or, in plain English, penguins!

A traditional imagining of penguins situates these black and white birds in polar climes, surrounded by icebergs and the freezing seas of the Southern Ocean. In fact, just as many species of penguin live in temperate climate zones, and one (the Galapagos penguin) is even found at the equator. The Falkland Islands are home to five different species of breeding penguins, with globally significant populations of three types; the Magellanic, Gentoo and Southern Rockhopper, each of which has its own distinct charm.

The Magellanic penguin is locally known as the ‘Jackass’ because of its mournful, braying call which can be heard all across the islands during the short summer nights, often keeping islanders awake in their beds (much to their chagrin). These penguins are medium-sized and unique in their ability to dig burrows for their nests. The peaty Falkland soils are ideal for such excavations and in the summer the coastline is littered with little black and white heads peeping out of the ground, like a southern ocean take on whack-a-mole. Often when walking past these dens a little head can be seen guarding the entrance, its owner looking at you suspiciously, first out of one eye and then the other. When defending their turf, Magellanics will swing their heads from side-to-side in the burrow-mouth, inflicting nasty wounds on any intruders with their hooked bills.


What you lookin’ at?

Gentoos, by contrast, are sprawled out in the open, forming haphazard but highly conspicuous colonies along the coast on grassy plains, which glow an intense viridian thanks to the never ending supply of enriching penguin poop that fertilizes them. Unlike the Magellanics and Rockhoppers, many of the Gentoo penguins remain resident in the Falklands year round, braving the winter months and treating off-season visitors to their comical waddling up and down the beaches.

In many ways the Gentoo is the classic penguin, black and white with a small red bill and an ingratiating clumsiness about its movements and actions. In the water, however, this penguin reigns supreme, swimming faster than any of its cousins by a considerable margin. A veritable torpedo, Gentoos can easily cruise at 35km/hr, or, for the swimmers amongst you, about 600 metres a minute, which is roughly equivalent to one length of a standard pool in 2.5 seconds! Witnessing the transformation between the ungainly birds being knocked off their feet by the surf as they wander into the sea and then swimming, lightning quick, once the water is deep enough, and leaping over the subsequent waves until they are well clear of the breakers is incredible. Suddenly, you understand why early European settlers in the Southern Ocean assumed these animals must be some kind of fish.


A waddle of Gentoos returns from their foraging

Finally, we come to the Rockhopper penguins, a firm favourite with both locals and visitors to the islands. Highly charismatic, these birds are easily identifiable by their yellow ear tufts and brilliant red eyes. They nest on cliffs and steep slopes and often undertake perilous journeys to and from the sea, hopping in eponymous fashion with both feet at the same time, using their beaks like a third limb to clamber up steep, slippery rock faces amid the crashing surf. They have seemingly no fear of man and will happily be approached at close proximity by curious tourists when resting on land. The sight of a ‘waddle’ (the correct collective term for land-based penguins) of Rockhoppers bouncing along the shore-line in unison after a foraging trip is extremely cute, as are the birds’ communal baths; furious events with several individuals thrashing around in rock pools to clean any parasites off their feathers. One colony even has a little freshwater waterfall running through it, and the Rockhoppers queue up all day long to shower underneath it and wash all the salt from their skin.


A Rockhopper chick midway through its adolescent moult

Essentially, the penguins’ universal popularity and iconic status in the Falklands is well earned. These birds are unbelievably charming and sitting for a few hours amongst the comings and goings of a colony on some windswept, abandoned beach is among the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. Similarly rewarding is watching other humans’ interactions with the little birds. Ever since the Falklands War in 1982, the United Kingdom has had a large, permanent military presence on the islands and seeing the ostensibly macho British soldiers engaging with the penguins is little short of heart-melting. I got chatting to one man, who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a high-security prison, with his enormous muscular frame, shaved head and heavily tattooed skin, and he confessed that the first time he had seen the penguins he had been moved to tears by the little birds. Naturally, I told him he was a wimp and needed to get a grip, attempting to cuff him round the ears before turning sharply and running away in the opposite direction.

But this soldier was by no means the exception. In my short time here I’ve seen plenty of gangs of squaddies following penguins around with their iPhones, or laughing and chatting animatedly as they compare photos and footage on the fringes of colonies. If the excitement and emotion elicited by the penguins can penetrate and over-ride the machismo of even these men, you know it has to be pretty powerful.


A Gentoo playing to the gallery on Volunteer Beach

How bizarre then that the first European settlers to arrive at these shores saw, in the penguins they met, only economic opportunity and the whiff of profit. It honestly baffles me that anyone could stroll down the Falkland Islands’ pristine, white-sand beaches and think, upon seeing the penguin colonies, of oil. But that is what happened. It would seem our ancestors were just as hell-bent on sourcing the organic liquid as we remain today, irrespective of the costs.

Across the Falklands, penguins in their thousands were turned into oil. Quite how I’m still not entirely sure, but I’m reliably informed that one bird yielded approximately a pint of liquid gold. Before long the penguin populations on the islands had been utterly decimated, with those colonies that weren’t liquidized robbed for their eggs instead. In less than a century there were so few penguins left that the industry collapsed and fortune-seekers had to turn to some other resource extraction to make their money. A wonderful illustration of how short-term human greed ultimately destroys those who seek to benefit from it. EU fishing policy-makers could do with examining this sad episode as a case study…

Thankfully, in recent decades the penguins have come under much stricter protection, with the NGO ‘Birdlife’ carrying out important research on the Falklands’ colonies to highlight their global importance to penguin populations. Even so, locals are still allowed to poach a quota of Gentoo eggs every year and the number of black and white birds residing across the islands is an order of magnitude lower than it was before the Europeans showed up. It will almost certainly never return to pre-industrial levels again.

Unfortunately for the Falklands’ penguins, being made into oil wasn’t the only imposition Europeans brought with them. The early settlers also introduced sheep and cattle to the islands, and these herbivores quickly set to work eliminating the native tussac grass that grows in thick stands around the coastline. This plant is the Falklands’ equivalent of trees, growing up to three metres in height and storing vast quantities of carbon over the course of its centuries-long lifespan. It is a vital habitat not just for penguins but also seals, sea lions and a host of other native birds and insects. It’s destruction not only removed many penguin colonies’ source of shelter but also destabilised the soil above the Magellanics’ burrows, causing many of them to collapse in subsequent rains, crushing or suffocating any penguins caught inside.


A ‘post-sheep’ coastal landscape, eroded and bare

Along with the sheep, introduced rabbits and hares backed up the larger grazers, helping to speed up the denuding of the islands’ landscape. Far more damaging though, were the cats, rats and mice that also escaped and wiped out entire species of birds from the islands they colonized. Today, only a few of the smaller offshore islands have retained a rodent-free status, thanks in part to the hard-work of the excellent charity ‘Falklands Conservation’, and it is in these isolated enclaves that many species of endemic birds persist in small numbers.


Walking through stands of tussac grass on Sea Lion island

Not content with savaging the Falklands’ flora, the sheep farmers also took it upon themselves to wipe out the archipelago’s only native land mammal, known as the ‘Warrah’ or Antarctic wolf. This poor canid was more like a fox than a true wolf and had absolutely no fear of humans, which some people take as evidence that it was a feral creature brought to the islands by Fuegian Indians long before European arrival. It would literally walk over to the farmers it saw, to greet them out of curiosity, only to have a knife stuck into its ribs or a stone bashed over its skull.

Interestingly, Charles Darwin, who visited the Falklands during his famous voyage on board the Beagle, predicted the demise of the Warrah when he saw these animals in the wild, noting that they would almost certainly “go the way of the Dodo” when Europeans colonized the islands, due to their lack of fear. Unfortunately, this was yet another Darwinian hypothesis that was right on the money.

The Warrah had been part of the Falklands’ ecology for long enough that it lived comfortably alongside the islands’ seabirds; the latter nesting in places the Warrah couldn’t get to, or else deep in the tussac grass, to avoid depredation. However, after the white man exterminated the Warrah he then, in his eternal wisdom, thought to re-fill the ecological niche with the Andean fox from nearby Patagonia. This, as is so often the case with non-native introductions, was a disaster. The new foxes were much more agile than the Warrah had been and could climb the cliffs the sea-birds nested on, decimating the islands’ populations of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters in just a few years. Unsurprisingly, man then sought to persecute the Andean fox, to make amends for the destruction this new predator had wreaked, but a small population of foxes still exists on some of the western islands, where they have destroyed the native bird populations but become a tourist attraction in their own right.


A couple of Jackasses

In the 21st century, man’s impacts on the Falklands’ penguins (and other wildlife) are far less direct, but no less insidious. First and foremost, climate change is now starting to show its hand, even here in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean. Last year’s record breaking El Nino event was accompanied by warmer-than-normal sea temperatures around the archipelago, which allowed a toxic algal bloom to poison much of the native marine life, similar to what was experienced all down the Pacific coast of North America. Worst affected were the Rockhopper penguins who were brought down in their thousands, choking and dying all across the islands’ beaches as they contaminated themselves with poisonous fish and krill. The Gentoos, for their part, were struck down by a nasty strain of avian pox, which has been infecting these penguins with increasing frequency in recent years for reasons as yet unknown.

Coupled with climate change, the Falkland islanders’ propensity for short-term economic booms has led to the over-exploitation of the rich fishing waters that surround the archipelago. Realising that licenses can be sold to an ever-growing list of international customers for a high price, native fisherman have been offering their waters to boats from as far afield as Korea and Spain. Many Asian countries who have already heavily overfished their adjacent seas are seeking to profit from the Falklanders’ generous quotas and in the last few years have been fishing roughly 10% of the entire planet’s squid catch from these rich waters.

While this is good in the short term for the islanders and their economy, it is unsustainable and will quickly lead to a depletion of local fish stocks and a collapse of the industry. Furthermore, the squid fishers compete directly with the penguins, and the latter are increasingly beginning to starve in the autumn, when they spend a month entirely on land during their annual moult.

In 2016, hundreds of Rockhopper penguin chicks died in the spring and summer, their corpses littering the beaches, much to the distress of the locals, as their parents failed to feed them sufficient quantities of food. Further sadness ensued the following March, when many of the parents also starved to death during their moult, having failed to accumulate sufficient body fat from the summer’s foraging.

Why we, as a species, seem incapable of moderating our exploitation of the environment to sustainable levels is beyond me. The Falklanders have suffered time and time again from their own short-termism and yet they seem unable to alter their behaviour. If the fishing continues at its current levels then the islands will suffer enormously in the future; both from reduced fishing license revenue and decreased tourism due to the lack of penguins and marine wildlife. More than this though, and more than money the islanders’ descendants stand to lose, they will have lost a marine ecology so rich and beautiful that it brings grown men to tears. They will have lost a priceless asset, which so many now cherish, and which fuels the islands’ identity and spirit. It is for these reasons that my emotional response to the Falklands’ wonders has been mixed. This fragile world sits atop a tipping point and the weight of historical evidence suggests its slow demise is all but inevitable.

There is a small shrub that carpets much of the land across these islands. It has a wonderfully childish name, ‘Diddledee’, and during the austral autumn (the current season) it produces hundreds of bright little red berries. This year by all accounts has been a bumper crop, and the islanders have been busy foraging on nice days to collect as many of the little fruits as possible as they are the only abundant native food source in the archipelago that can be made into jam. Despite their enticing appearance, however, Diddledee berries are actually extremely bitter and any conserve produced from them requires vast amounts of added sugar to be edible.

I like to think that in many ways Diddledee jam sums up my experience in the Falklands so far. For the closer I have looked at the sugar-coated wonders of these islands, the more I have begun to sense the less-palatable facts that lie beneath. Like the much-frequented bar in archipelago’s capital town, Port Stanley, the reality of the natural world here is bittersweet.