The Falkland Islands Part IV: The Sea Lions of Cape Dolphin

by matthay44

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*This latest post chronicles an adventure I had visiting Cape Dolphin, the most northerly point of East Falkland, in an attempt to find the colony of sea lions that I’d heard live right on the Cape’s tip, in amongst the tussac grass.

Having left everyone else at the landrover drop off, I figured I would have a 45 minute march to reach the tussac plantation at the end of Cape Dolphin and find my sea lions. One hour later and I was still only two thirds of the way there…I checked my phone and sure enough it wasn’t the 4 kilometres the map had implied; I’d already walked 7 kilometres and was still a way off. But the walk itself hadn’t been unpleasant. I had seen plenty of upland geese and, the further up the Cape I went, the more birds of prey started to appear. Soon there were dozens of Turkey vultures swooping around and plenty of red-backed hawks. I saw two peregrines, known locally as Cassin’s falcon, squabbling in mid-air and loads of southern giant petrels whizzing by on the strong winds. I think I also saw my first albatross, certainly its wing span was enormous, but it was quite high up so I couldn’t be sure.

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Turkey vultures soaring on the breeze

Eventually I reached the fence that protected the tussac plantation from the farmer’s sheep but to my surprise the field beyond was full of cattle. I approached the fence and they all got up and ran over to inspect me. Since my time in Australia I’ve always been a slightly nervous of unruly cows, having seen a protective mother charge at and upend a horse (plus rider) when they got too close to her calf, and these semi-wild beasts made me feel somewhat anxious. Certainly, they seemed like a herd that would follow me wherever I walked, which wasn’t what I wanted…so I looked around to see if there was any alternative way to proceed. There wasn’t. I couldn’t see any gates at all so I figured the only thing for it was to jump up and over the fence. There were signs all along it stating it’s electrification, but this is commonplace in the Falklands and hardly any of them are switched on. I tentatively touched it a few times and then rested my fingers on it…nothing. I threw my backpack and camera over the fence and hoisted myself up, with my legs straddling the top (electrified) wire. At this point the cows were sniffing around my backpack, and I looked round to check they weren’t standing on my camera and then I screamed.

The slight shift in my balance had moved the fence’s wire to the left and this force was clearly the cue it needed to unleash its XX,000 volts on me. Even worse, the shock of the electricity left me unable to unclamp the wrist that was gripping the wire, prolonging my pain. Eventually I threw my weight sideways towards the cows and fell off the fence onto the other side. When I looked up, the cows were standing completely still, staring at me with fear in their eyes. No doubt they had long-since learnt not to touch the fence and having just seen me electrocute myself (seemingly) voluntarily, they must have decided that I was completely unhinged, a madman of the first order. As I got to my feet and began to swear at myself, interspersed by bursts of manic laughter (I blame the shock), they turned tail and fled, unwilling to linger any more in my crazy presence. Objective complete.

I picked up my pack and headed north once again, with the renewed spring in my step that only a strong electric shock can give you. I scanned my map and it showed a sea lion colony not far from where I was standing, on the western side of the cape. I peered down at the shoreline but could see nothing. My faith in the map plummeted further and I began to fear I’d made this whole bloody trip in vain. I did then catch a glimpse of a flipper in the water and there was a sea lion swimming around out there, but it was a long way off and so I pushed on in the hopes of finding a colony that had hauled out on the land.

The further up the cape I got, the taller the tussac grass became. Eventually it was 2-3 metres high all around me and my progress, as a consequence, became painfully slow. I only had 75 minutes to get back for the landrover lift home and it had already taken me 90 minutes to get to where I was. But then I heard the unmistakable growling and grunting of male sea lions and I quickly headed to get a view of the coast. Finally, there they were; a nice colony of 20 or so sea lions hauled out on the rocks. There were pups, females and several big bulls lying around but no obvious way to descend the cliffs onto their beach. I decided I would press on for the very tip of the cape instead, as my useless map said that this was where I would most likely find sea lions in the tussac rather than by the sea.

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Well aware that I was running out of time I quickly pushed through the grass, stumbling over the peaty deposits of old and dead plants as I forged a path through the thick vegetation. I was only two minutes into this quest when suddenly, just ahead of me something moved…it was a sea lion! A young male or female by the looks of things. It put its flippers up on a peat bank and stared at me before barking to its pals and turning tail to flee. Suddenly there were sounds all around me, low grunts and growls and something that sounded like Chewbacca from Star Wars, and then from every direction the tussac grass was moving as sea lion after sea lion piled out of their hiding places and ran to join their friends and get away from me.

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By this stage I was exhilarated by my close encounter, but also slightly unnerved. I couldn’t see more than 2 metres in any direction and the strange sounds and movements continued for some time. I jumped up on top of the nearest tussac so that I would at least be visible to the sea lions and hopefully not startle them anymore. I poked my head out above the grass and there they all were, craning their necks out of the stands to look at me in turn, like a life-size version of whack-a-mole. There we some big bulls, but also little pups and all sizes in between.

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I stayed with the gang for about 5 minutes, watching them and taking photos before I had to turn and start the journey back. I was really in danger of missing my ride home and that would be very bad news…so I hopped off my tussac plant and began bashing a way back to the electric fence. As I pushed through the grass something roared at me and I was stopped in my tracks by a bull sea lion blocking my path. He clearly wasn’t as timid as the others and hadn’t bothered to run away with the rest of them. He stared at me for a good long time before eventually getting up and sloping off. My heart was pounding by this stage. These animals were BIG and I did not want to frighten any more bulls in case one attacked me but at the same time I had to get going and get out of the deep tussac grass. As I ran back I disturbed another bull, much closer to the electric fence this time, and he jumped towards me as I skipped past. It was pretty frightening, particularly on my own, and reminded me of the Tomb Raider computer games I used to play, where enemies and hazards would frequently come at you from the peripheries. How I had missed him lying there on the way in I have no idea…

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Eventually, I was out of the tussac and running home. Luckily this time I found a well placed rock to use as a launch pad and jumped clear of the electric fence…I had no more time to lose to further shocks. In the end, I had to jog the whole 9 kilometres back to the pick-up point, which over the rough ground and with a full backpack on was exhausting. I made it back just as the landrover pulled up and got straight in without breaking my stride. I chucked my rucksack in the boot, went and sat on the back row and promptly nodded off.  If I manage to go back to Cape Dolphin again before I leave the Falklands, I think I’ll stick with the rest of the day-trippers next time and go see the Gentoo penguins on the beach next to the drop-off instead…