The Falkland Islands Part V: Saunders Island

by matthay44

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I’ve had another good few weeks, the highlight of which was a trip on the ol’ chopper out to Saunders Island, in the far northwest of the archipelago. I’d been itching to make it here since I first arrived and heard about the place. It is widely regarded to be one of the best Falklands destinations for wildlife, only the uninhabited Jason Islands can top it for densities of animals but they are (quite rightly) almost impossible to visit without extensive permits and permissions.

I was pretty canny with my trip to Saunders too, if I do say so myself, and checked the weather well in advance of my departure day. A fairly horrible set up with strong winds and low cloud looked likely to make the experience a miserable one so I begged my boss to cover my shift on Sunday and took that as my day off instead. This proved to be a good call, as Saturday’s chopper was grounded by the elements, where as Sunday was sunny, warm and by Falklands’ standards windless too. However, my good work was nearly undermined by an impulsive decision to have a few too many sherbets on the Saturday night – I woke up with 20 mins to spare before my check in and a distinctly fuzzy head. But, if university has prepared me for anything in this life it was moments such as this, and in a whirlwind of activity I managed to dress, pack, eat and drink before plonking myself down in heli-ops just 19 mins later.

After a fairly long flight across the archipelago the chopper spat us out on a random hillside on Saunders Island and I joined a group of army squaddies, who were the only group marching along at a decent pace, as we all headed for the ‘neck’, a famous isthmus (double-sided beach), where most of the island’s wildlife hangs out. Once again, I was delighted with just how enthused my military companions were by the Falklands’ fauna. In amongst their ropey banter they talked earnestly about their encounters with elephant seals and efforts to go whale-watching while being based in the South Atlantic. One bloke also confessed that he was so smitten with the islands’ penguins that he drove his wife spare with his incessant ramblings about them, to the extent that she turned around to him one morning and said, “I know you’ve been to the Falklands, love, but will you SHUT THE F**K UP about those F**CKING penguins. You’re doing my head in!”.

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A whale skeleton, on the hillside above the beach

After a half-hour hike, the five of us made it over the summit of a hill and a view of the neck opened out before us. It is an unbelievably beautiful spot, with a broad sweep of white sand, flanked by bright blue water and covered in penguin colonies. Had I come in the summer, there would have been twice the amount of birds too, as the migratory Rockhopper and Magellanic penguins had both already departed for their wintering grounds further north. Unfortunately, the island’s piece de resistance, albatross, had also abandoned their colonies, which was very sad. I would have absolutely loved to see some and, because Saunders is closing permanently to visitors like me this winter, I may not get another chance. I did try and see the albatross too, abandoning my army pals and hiking up the mountainside to their colony to see if any stragglers were left behind. None.

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A mature striated caracara guards the gatepost on the path to ‘the neck’

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The beach on the northern side of ‘the neck’ complete with  army pals…

With the rest of my time, I decided to just sit on the beach and watch the world go by. Normally on these trips to the wildlife hotspots everyone runs around like headless geese trying to instagram and film every penguin they see, and take ‘all the photos’ in the short time they have available. I have been just as guilty of this behavior as the next man in my previous trips, and realized on more than one occasion that I was often looking at wildlife that was only feet away from me through my iPhone display and not with my eyes. In any case, I reasoned, I had taken plenty of photos of penguins, so I was happy to chill on this occasion. I took my backpack off and sat near a huddle of four Gentoos on the beach. Together we gazed out to sea in a companionable silence.

Staying still like this, I began to attract the attention of several caracaras, which kept trying to break into my backpack and steal my packed lunch. They even tried to fly away with the rucksack, an ambitious plan given that it weighed 12 kilos!! Increasingly too, I began to realize that lots of Gentoo penguins were amassing in my vicinity. One-by-one they would waddle out of the sea, after a hard morning’s fishing, and congregate with their fellows on the shore. They would then fastidiously clean their feathers, to remove the salt and re-oil their plumage, and this process takes about 15 – 20 minutes. After an hour of sitting there were maybe 20 of the little guys near me, at which point I did start to photograph them because for once they seemed unperturbed by my presence. At the same time, I spotted an albatross skimming the water out to sea and then realized that a small group of Commerson’s dolphins were surfing the waves directly in front of me too.

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Here they come…!

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The growing huddle of penguins

The dolphins’ surfing is wonderful to watch, particularly as it serves no purpose – they just do it for fun! Every time the face of the wave rears up before breaking, the whole dolphin is visible for a brief second, as if trapped in a tube of glass, and you can make out their white-patterned markings and even their little eyes. Then the wave breaks and all bar the dorsal fins are obscured by white surf.

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Penguin preening

I think it is fair to say that I had a ‘moment’ on this beach. One of those odd occasions that are often described in grandiose and contrived ways by spiritual-y/hippy-ish types and always sound rather laughable. Maybe it was the effects of the alcohol still in my bloodstream but it was honestly one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life, on this empty, golden beach, surrounded by penguins as these dolphins showed-off in the crystal-clear surf in front of me. I almost wanted to shed a single, manly tear in appreciation…

All flippancy aside, it really hammered home just how special the Falklands are. I’m lucky enough to have travelled the world extensively and seen some amazing things, but I would not hesitate the rank this group of islands up there with the most incredible places I’ve ever been to. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to come here.

Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t realize that everyone else had left for the helicopter and I found myself completely alone on the beach. Fearing the scenario I had narrowly avoided at Cape Dolphin I began to run back as fast as I could. My hangover didn’t thank me.

By the time I had made it back to the pick-up point my army pals had invented a new game, which involved getting one of them to lie down on the ground and then covering his body with food to entice scavenging caracaras to walk all over him. It was pretty funny, though the birds were definitely wary of the soldier initially and took a long time to pluck up the courage to land on his back and eat off his arse.

I noticed that all of these caracaras had tumour-like protrusions on their chests; big bulges of featherless mass that hung-off them and looked horrible. I assumed that they were cancerous and, concerned, I emailed Falklands Conservation to let them know that maybe these birds had found a toxic food-source on Saunders island somewhere. I received an amused reply from the local conservation officer that these extrusions were actually the birds’ ‘crops’ (bellies) and far from being on death’s door, they were all fat…no doubt in part due to pranksters like my army pals who end up feeding them sausage rolls and crisps!

Anyway, I was pleased they weren’t all suffering. Far from it, they were living the dream in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.

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Three kings waddle down to the sea for an afternoon dip