The Falkland Islands: A must-see destination on your Antarctic journey
Join John Maddocks as he wonders at nature and isolated islands.
The black-browed albatross sweeps low over our heads, landing rather elegantly beside its nest, a solid pillar of mud set in tall tussock grass. It joins hundreds of other nesting albatrosses on the steep slope that leads to a dramatic cliff edge on West Point Island, our first landing place in the Falklands.
For nature lovers, this is a significant moment. We’re metres from these legendary birds and their nesting neighbours, a large colony of Rockhopper penguins. The albatrosses and penguins show no fear of us and they don’t interfere with each other. And the reason we’re seeing so many black-browed albatrosses is that the Falkland Islands (or Islas Malvinas to Argentines) is home to eighty-five percent of the world’s population, around 680,000 pairs. Little wonder that West Point was once called Albatross Island.
I’ve been fascinated by the albatross ever since reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at school, in which the bird symbolises nature. In the poem, an albatross follows the mariner’s ship into Antarctic waters, but despite the albatross being regarded as a lucky omen by sailors, the mariner shoots it with a crossbow. From that moment the ship and crew are doomed.
I am reminded of the poem when I sight an albatross soon after our ship sails from Ushuaia on the southern tip of Argentina. Our expedition vessel, heading for Antarctica, is quickly circled by black-browed albatrosses which follow us all the way to the Falkland Islands. But instead of aiming a crossbow at them, I shoot hundreds of photos of these majestic birds as they soar effortlessly and swoop close to the ocean’s surface.
Albatrosses can live up to seventy years, often spending months at sea flying for thousands of kilometres and only coming to land to breed, so while we feel privileged to be so close to these amazing seafarers on West Point Island, the comical rockhopper penguins show no respect. These penguins spend a great deal of time waddling between the albatross pillars in an ungainly way collecting bits of grass to build their own nests. Looking at their stocky bodies, it’s hard to believe they move like torpedoes under water.
After climbing down to the beach, we encounter a sleeping fur seal who seems oblivious to our presence. Half-a-dozen Magellanic penguins come out of the ocean and make their way up the beach. Some Upland geese walk beside the water with their chicks, unconcerned about a Magellanic penguin strolling beside them. Gentoo penguins gather on grassland behind the dunes. Things seem quite harmonious in this remote part of the world, at least in the animal realm.
But there hasn’t been much harmony in the human world. Countries have been fighting over the Falklands for centuries. The French and Spanish made early claims on the islands and later the Germans and Americans showed an interest. But the British have held sway here since 1833 and still do after winning the 1982 war with Argentina. Tensions remain, however, as Argentina continues to claim the islands.
The excellent Historic Dockyard Museum in the capital Stanley has a fascinating gallery devoted to the Falklands War and curating staff are happy to discuss the exhibits, some of which include confronting stories of the inhabitants’ war experiences.
With a population of just over two thousand, Stanley is more like a quaint English village of red phone boxes and Land Rovers than a British Overseas Territory’s centre of government. Nevertheless, there is a Governor who resides in a rather splendid government house and a functioning Legislative Assembly. And if the locals often seem more British than the Brits themselves, that’s because 99.8% of them voted to remain British in a 2013 referendum. Patriotic fervour is obvious in places such as the Victory Bar, which is festooned with Union Jacks and Falklands flags. Here you can chat to friendly locals and have scampi and chips washed down with a warm ale from the Falklands Beerworks.
Stanley is a very welcoming place and, as you walk around, there’s a genuine feeling of a far-flung outpost with an overwhelming sense of community. Christ Church Cathedral is a prominent landmark, as is the nearby arch made from the jawbones of blue whales in 1933. The weekly Penguin News keeps inhabitants informed about local and international events relating to the Falklands.
From a traveller’s point of view, the Falklands present a rare opportunity to experience exceptional wildlife in one of the planet’s last functioning colonial outposts
The writer travelled courtesy of One Ocean Expeditions.
Getting There: Air New Zealand flies to Buenos Aires via Auckland and code shares with Aerolineas Argentinas for flights from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. www.airnewzealand.com.au
Other One Ocean Expeditions’ journeys commence in Chile. Qantas flies to Santiago and code shares with LATAM Airlines for flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas. From Punta Arenas you either fly to the Falklands or commence your sea voyage. www.qantas.com/au/en.html
Cruise: One Ocean Expeditions have cruises to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica. Visit www.oneoceanexpeditions.com or phone 1300 368 123 or (02) 9119 2228
See John's new book Against the Odds: surviving the world's worst tsunamiand overcoming trauma at
Story and images (except #6) by John Maddocks
Feature supplied by: www.wtfmedia.com.au