The Falkland Islands Part III: The Spoils of War

by matthay44

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*This post is a piece I wrote for the National Geographic Traveller’s 2017 Travel Writing Competition. Word limit – 500 words.

Watching penguins in the water is immensely satisfying. The confidence and prowess that these birds exude is adaptation perfected; the loss of flight a small price to pay for such grace. It seems entirely reasonable that the first sailors to encounter them, dashing and darting through the water beside their ships, assumed them to be some type of fish, rather than a bird.

As I stood observing the individuals nearest to me, I could not believe how starkly this contrasted with their movements on land. Awkward and ungainly they waddled, easily toppled or over-balanced by the barging of a nearby fellow, which itself was probably unintentional; the product of a lack of self-control.

The situation of this particular penguin colony was magnificent, based on the edge of the picture postcard Yorke bay, a sparkling strip of silver-white sand and azure water on the eastern coast of the East Falkland, the archipelago’s largest island. Although the temperature was only six degrees above freezing, the clean, clear water looked as inviting as the Caribbean Sea, with well-formed little waves washing waddles of penguins ashore at times, their black bodies distinct against the frothy white of the surf.

These penguins were ‘Magellanic’, one of the five species that breed in the Falklands, and unique in their habit of digging burrows underground to nest in. Like all of the archipelago’s penguins they have suffered, and continue to, at the hands of man. Early settlers harvested the birds in their thousands, boiling them down in vast pots to yield oil or else poaching eggs from their nests to eat. Now, in the 21st century, the anthropogenic impacts are less apparent but no less insidious. Over-fishing of the penguins’ primary food sources and climate change combine to keep numbers of these animals vastly lower than historical norms, and all the while the ever-present threats of avian pox and toxic algal blooms loom over the fragmented populations. Their future is uncertain.

On top of these ubiquitous ills, Yorke Bay’s pristine appearance masks another, more deadly, artefact of man’s creation: landmines. Installed during the Argentine occupation of the Falklands, this ordnance now lies buried under shifting sand dunes and in amongst the penguin burrows. It still serves its intended purpose, to stop humans setting foot on the beach, but as a result it now also protects the wildlife that resides here, ensuring that prying tourists do not panic breeding birds with their proximity, or unduly stress the sea lions that haul out here.

There is an obvious irony to Yorke Bay’s unspoilt splendour relying on man’s propensity for destruction, its stark beauty the result of evil lurking beneath the surface. But its silver sands are a welcome silver lining to a conflict that was brutal and uncompromising.

At times the penguins themselves look like weapons; black torpedoes speeding above the sand. It is a joy to watch them, undisturbed and unaware as they are of the animosity that now serves to protect them.

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