Imagine a world where you can have a full-on, Force 10 wildlife experience in the company of almost nobody else. Ben Hoare visits the Falkland Islands, the war zone that became a wildlife wonderland.
I ducked instinctively. The great bird scythed through the air, just missing my head, its shadow flickering across the ground as if trying to catch up. A black-browed albatross. It banked hard, caught an updraft and hurtled out into the bay, rapidly becoming a white fleck over the waves. Never have I been more in awe of the power of flight, or more tempted to believe that birds do realise how lucky they are.
I ducked again as – whoosh! – another albatross swept past, turning its huge head to look at me as it went. For a split second, we were eyeball to eyeball. A third albatross approached, then a fourth… Do they ever crash into people perched on this clifftop, I wondered? But no, the birds traced an identical path to the ones before, riding the invisible air currents to perfection.
The Devil’s Nose
Welcome to the Devil’s Nose, a jaw-dropping, 350m-high promontory on West Point Island in the north-west corner of the Falklands. Albatrosses are in their element here. Sea and rocks collide in thunderous clouds of spray, and there is something else no self-respecting ocean nomad can do without: wind. Lots of it.
I cannot imagine a more spectacular setting in which to indulge in a spot of birdwatching and, as usual since my arrival in this far-flung British territory, I had the place all to myself.
The Falklands are attracting growing numbers of tourists every year, yet few explore the back-of-beyond areas that locals call ‘the Camp’, where much of the wildlife is found. So I had arranged to visit five outlying islands, each with its own character: West Point, Carcass, Weddell, Pebble and Sea Lion.
Given the distances and the rough and unpredictable seas, the easiest way to get around was in light aircraft operated by FIGAS, the Government’s subsidised air taxi-cum-postal service. West Point, however, is only accessible by boat – some wildernesses are wild for a reason.
It was late January, midsummer at this latitude of the Southern Hemisphere, and many of the adult albatrosses at the Devil’s Nose colony were sitting on strange ‘mudpot’ nests.
Though barely a month old, their bloated chicks already resembled fluffy grey footballs – it’s amazing what pester power and a high-protein squid diet can do. In among the albatrosses were hundreds of rockhopper penguins with spiky black-and-yellow crests and fierce red eyes. Long lines clambered unsteadily up the steep slope from sea to colony, holding their flippers out for balance, a Lilliputian army of drunk punks in black tie.
Noisy squabbles were breaking out everywhere I looked – between albatrosses, between penguins, and between albatrosses and penguins, and frequently the chicks joined in, too. So intense was this chaotic scene that I hardly moved for four hours.
Suddenly, I was startled by the surreal sound of a mobile ringtone (with nobody else around, I’d got into the habit of setting the alarm on my phone to keep track of time). I headed back to the Condor, the former fishing vessel waiting for me on the other side of the island.
Penguins for tea
The skipper Michael and his wife Jeanette are the only permanent residents on West Point. Like all islanders of the old school, they are nearly self-sufficient and seem to relish extreme isolation. Over a cuppa, they agreed to take the ‘scenic’ route to Carcass Island, a faint smudge on the horizon where I was staying that night.
As we puttered along the rugged coast, a pod of Commerson’s dolphins surrounded the boat, their smart black-and-white markings clearly visible in the turquoise water. Minutes later, we picked up a couple of larger, steely grey Peale’s dolphins. One began repeatedly slapping the surface with its tail, showering the boat with water and drenching me from head to toe.
A sealion poked its snout out beside us, but unlike the dolphins, decided not to play. Flightless steamer ducks steamed full ahead (there’s no other way to describe it). And albatrosses and southern giant petrels careered past the boat on all sides.
“The gentoo penguins come ashore at half past four,” Michael assured me, and, sure enough, they started to appear off our stern, 30 or 40 at a time, leaping in and out of the water in a quickfire action known as porpoising. Bellies full after a day’s fishing far offshore, the gentoos were obviously in a hurry to feed their hungry chicks. Several thuggish-looking Antarctic skuas, pirates of the high seas, cruised overhead expectantly.