The Falkland Islands, where penguins outnumber people


Lying 490 kilometres east of Patagonia, the Falkland Islands (usually called the Falklands) is arguably the most consistently savage seas of the world. The archipelago with a land area of 12,173 km² with a coastline length of ±1,288 km has a rich dramatic history in shipping as it is a natural steppingstone for polar voyages to South Georgia and Antarctica. There are more than 300 wrecks estimated to be around Falkland Islands shores, over 100 of which have been recorded. The most famous casualties who ended up in the Islands are the Great Britain (now relocated to the UK) and one of the world’s most photographed wrecks, the Lady Elizabeth.

These days, the Falkland Islands’ main attraction is undoubtedly its incredible wildlife. It boasts numerous species of birds and marine mammals, along with a number of great tour options that will get visitors up close to them. But few decades ago, Falklands, as hard as it is to believe, were the site of war. The archipelago had been a source of dispute between Britain and Argentina. Historically, this cold, windy and almost treeless area is divided into two large islands namely the East Falkland and West Falkland, separated by a small strait called the Falkland Sound. British navigator John Davis may have sighted the islands in 1592, and in 1690 British Navy Captain John Strong made the first recorded landing on the islands. He named them after Viscount Falkland, who was the First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. However, it was only Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from France who began to establish settlements there in 1764 and named the island as Malovine. Since then, the Falklands began to be visited by Europeans, including Spain, who established settlements in the East Falklands until 1811. Territorial disputes arose when Argentina began to declare sovereignty over the Falklands in 1820. A series of incidents occurred starting from US warships destroyed Argentine settlements in the East Falklands in 1831 in retaliation for the capture of three US ships hunting for seals in the area, until the expulsion of several Argentine officials by British troops in 1833. The dispute was not actually resolved until the 19th century. Both countries had to sacrifice hundreds of their soldiers in the 74-day war which Britain eventually won in 1982.

Also known as Malvinas islands, the Falklands is made up of more than 700 islands, and is home to about 3200 people, and several million penguins. The coastline is heavily indented with fjords and many natural harbours. The crags dotted with seabirds, beaches covered with penguins, sprawling nature reserves edging on outpost towns, whales and seals competing for space off-shore – the Falklands are a nature lover’s paradise.

There are no longer any land mammals indigenous to the Falklands as the wild fox being extinct. But this place is known as the world’s largest breeding site for elephant seals. The Falkland Islands are also believed to be the global population stronghold for the species Striated Caracara (Phalcoboenus australis) which is currently estimated at between 1500 and 4000 adult individuals according to Birdlife International 2017. By experts’ estimates, there are 63 species of breeding birds and 23 migrant species in the Falklands. Just south of the East Falklands, easy-to-navigate Bleaker Island has colonies of gentoo and rockhopper penguins, as well as a sprawling colony of king cormorants. Further south, tiny Sea Lion Island is home to the largest colony of elephant seals in the archipelago, with up to 2,000 of these grumpy animals hauled up on the dazzling white sand beaches at the height of the breeding season. Small groups of the rare southern sea lion also breed here and can be seen on the rocky coastal ledges as well as in the spectacular tussock grass plantations that cover one fifth of the island. Rockhopper, gentoo and Magellanic penguins can also be seen, while pods of orca are often spotted offshore, occasionally they have been spotted hunting elephant seal pups in large tidal pools on the island’s south-eastern coast. North of the West Falklands, separated from West Falkland by only a very narrow channel, Pebble Island offers a great mix of penguin colonies and remnants of the Falklands War, as well as stunning beaches. Pebble Island also boasts concentrations of gentoo and rockhopper penguins, plus a substantial sheep population. Great Saunders Island, to the west, was the site of the first British settlement in the Falklands and is now a working farm. This scenic island is made up of two large peaks divided by a thin sandy isthmus called the Neck. As one of the archipelago’s wildlife hotspots, Saunders has over 11,000 pairs of breeding black-browed albatross, large colonies of gentoo, Magellanic and rockhopper penguins, as well as elephant seals, cormorants, petrels and even a few king penguins. At the north-western tip of the Falkland archipelago, diverse bird life and large numbers of elephant seals thrive on smaller Carcass Island; boat trips can be arranged to uninhabited Steeple Jason Island. About 70 percent of the world’s population of black-browed albatross inhabit Steeple Jason Island, which lies northwest of West Falkland, making it the largest colony of this species on the planet. Finally, the vast Weddell Island, on the southwest edge of the Falklands, contains most of the Falklands bird species, including all penguins, as well as birds visiting from South America. The island is also home to the Patagonian fox. February and March are the best months for whale watching, with killer whales, blue whales, sei whales, southern right whales and more spotted in the deep waters along the islands’ edges.

While it is the southern-most point of South America, the Falklands are a bastion of British culture and traditions. The capital of Falklands, Stanley, with rows of brightly coloured rooftops boast the cheerful look of a town made from Lego blocks. The island’s small cathedral has an archway crafted from the jawbones of two blue whales, while just across the road, in a small seafront park, the mizzen mast of the SS Great Britain, salvaged when the great ship was beaten back from Cape Horn and took refuge. For a settlement of its size (inhabited by 85% of the Falkland’s civilian population), Stanley is crammed with character. Although this place bears the scars of war, but like any quintessential British town, Stanley offers a smattering of pubs, churches, and small museums. Stanley appeals to culture and wildlife enthusiasts. Its major attractions include Mount Tumbledown, the site of a major battle in the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain, and the Magellanic penguin colony at Gypsy Cove.

Unravelling this secluded wildlife’s haven of Falklands is best between October and April. During the high season (December to February), Stanley is visited by cruise ships several times a week, with some continuing on to South Georgia and Antarctica. The abundant wildlife will always be there to observe in Falklands, but there is more chance of warmer weather in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months.

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