The Falkland Islands Part II: Dolphins and Lunacy – A Day at the Beach

by matthay44

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A more lighthearted post for you all this week. As the Falkland Islands head rapidly towards austral wintertime it is already cold and dark enough here without me throwing more gloomy fuel onto the fire. So, instead, I’m going to write about the excellent day off I had this week, when I made the short-trip to my local wildlife haven, ‘Bertha’s Beach’.

Bertha’s is an incredible place. Think 7 miles of bright white sand and crashing surf complete with colonies of penguins and hundreds of other birds; gulls, plovers, petrels and the enormous Falklands’ flightless steamer ducks, an endemic species that has lost its wings and grown to the size of a goose in the absence of land-based predators. The beach is named after a ship, Bertha, which sunk close to the shore after a navigational error saw it dashed on a rocky reef. Allegedly, this mishap was due to magnetic abnormalities that are present in the local area, centred on the aptly named ‘Direction Island’, which lies just a mile to the east of Bertha’s beach and seems to be the South Atlantic’s answer to the Bermuda triangle. As far as I’m aware you can still see the remains of Bertha’s wreck, though the few hardy scuba-divers that do this normally check it out in the height of summer when the swell is less big.

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Some of Bertha’s resident Gentoos

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Shipwrecks aside, I came to Bertha’s with a specific objective: to swim with dolphins. There are several resident groups of two species of dolphin that patrol the bays around Bertha’s and I figured that the water wasn’t going to be getting any warmer between now and June so if I was ever gonna do it, now was the time! I had been reliably informed by some of my military colleagues that the trick to attracting the dolphins is to have a set of keys in your hand and shake these underwater when you know there are dolphins nearby. Stories of the success that this technique yields vary from accounts of swimming with eight dolphins side by side, to dolphins fetching their friends (i.e. more dolphins) to come and swim with people; needless to say my hopes were high! Unfortunately I didn’t have a set of non-electronic keys that I could use, but my soldier pals assured me that this was no problem; “Just bang two stones together underwater and they will come to you” they said…yeah right.

Anyway, here I was wandering down the beach and, sure enough, I saw the tell-tale fins and white flanks of some Commersons dolphins, known locally as the “puffing-pig” because of their flat noses and frequent, noisy breaths. This was my time. I quickly stripped down and pulled my wetsuit on before searching out of some likely looking stones. I then charged into the freezing water, resenting for the hundredth time the fact that I had forgotten both my wetsuit gloves and booties. At least it was a sandy bay.

Once I got out of my depth I treaded water looking around for the puffing pigs. Nothing. I started banging the stones together, but I wasn’t sure what rhythm the dolphins would like. I tried a few different beats but no joy. Half an hour later, with numb hands and feelingless feet I dejectedly slumped back out of the water and began walking down the beach to my backpack. On the way, I very nearly tripped over a large log that I was sure hadn’t been there before. Slowly the cogs in my frozen brain began to turn…”a log? In a treeless country? Hmm?”, then I noticed the log was moving and I nearly pooped myself. I jumped backwards before I stood on the elephant seal while the words “holy shit” escaped from me. That thing must have been in the water when I first got in!

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An Elephant seal pup, or weaner

The seal, for its part, took no notice of me and simply continued to nap, while it was slowly buried by the drifting sand. It was only a pup, but still about 6 feet long and probably weighing in at almost a tonne. Normally the pups have all headed far out into the ocean at this time of year, so this one might be struggling a bit. In fact, I was initially worried that it was in a bad way because it seemed to be breathing very fast, so I woke it up just to check that it was alive. A few “little seal?”s later and it finally acknowledged my presence and rolled over to look at me with its massive, black eyes. It then yawned, sneezed at me and went back to sleep. I sat by it and ate my lunch.

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Hiiiii

While eating, I noticed some more fins in the bay and thought my luck was in again. This time the dorsal fins were longer, meaning that some larger Peale’s dolphins must have swum in. I zipped my wetsuit back up and ran in again, much to the displeasure of my barely thawing feet. I cracked my stones together with even more gusto than before, I splashed around, I whistled, I even sang to the bloody dolphins but they didn’t care for me. It suddenly dawned on me that I might have been stitched up by the army lads. No doubt it was an amusing scene for them to imagine; a crazy, bearded man standing in the sea, banging stones together and wailing at the waves. I body-surfed the next wave in, endured a 30 second brain-freeze as a consequence, and sat down with my seal friend once again. He was clearly pleased to see me and let out a little fart on my return.

The damned dolphins tempted me into the water one more time before I eventually conceded defeat and began the long, wet march back to my 4×4. The only good thing to come of it was the look on the guard’s face when I drove back onto the base, still in my wetsuit, flashing my military I.D. at him. Probably not something he sees every day…

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A Turkey vulture feasts on the remains of some poor penguin