Travel consultant Ben Line ventured to the far south to see the fearless wildlife of the Falkland Islands.
Killer whales, bull elephant seals, black-browed albatrosses, king, rockhopper and gentoo penguins are just some of the different species of wildlife on these rugged but picturesque islands.
The Falkland Islands are made up of about 740 islands, most of which are uninhabited. About 85% of the tiny population (2,500) live in colourful Port Stanley, with the remainder scattered on tiny sheep farming settlements. It should hardly be surprising then that this unspoilt and remote archipelago offers some of the best wildlife viewing in Latin America.
The Falkland Islands are very much off the beaten track. The weekly flight from Santiago to the Falkland Islands touches down once a week in Punta Arenas, itself the gateway to the spectacular and much visited Torres del Paine National Park. With Mount Pleasant International airport only a one and a half-hour flight away from Punta Arenas, the Falkland Islands combine perfectly with a holiday to Patagonia. Alternatively, several of the Antarctic cruise itineraries include a visit to the Falklands.
In October last year I was fortunate enough to travel to this part of the world. On arrival, I shared my transfer into the capital Port Stanley with a National Geographic film crew. This was surely a good sign that even this early in their summer the wildlife would not be disappointing. Indeed it wasn’t.
The next day I set off for my first taste of wildlife watching in the Falkland Islands. As with most land transport here, much of the journey was entirely off-road but the bumpy 3-hour trip across the soft boggy ground to Volunteer Point was more than worth it.
Volunteer Beach is a pristine two-mile long white sand beach backed by a grassy bank and a deep blue lagoon. This stunning location is the year-round home to a noisy colony of about 500 pairs of strikingly beautiful king penguins and their fluffy brown chicks. Seeing the most elegant and photogenic of the penguin family up so close was made all the more magical for being one of only four tourists there.
My next stop was the smallest inhabited island in the archipelago, Sea Lion Island. Being a nervous flyer, I was apprehensive about the 8-seater twin propeller flight to get there. So I was pleased to learn the planes are specially designed for short take-offs, windy conditions and grass landing strips (and that the pilots always radio ahead to ensure any stray geese or sheep have been chased off the airstrip!).
The beauty of Sea Lion Island is the abundance of wildlife is within walking distance of the comfortable purpose-built lodge. Thanks to a lack of introduced predators this tiny island boasts one of the greatest variety of bird and animal life of all the islands. It is also the best place for spotting killer whales - there are two resident pods.
During my short stay on Sea Lion Island I watched rockhopper penguins climb up the impossibly steep cliffs to their rookeries. I sat surrounded and entertained by inquisitive gentoo penguins and their nervous cousins, the magellanic penguins. I spotted countless bird species, including many endangered striated caracara and impressive numbers of nesting giant petrels and blue-eyed cormorants. I watched in awe as enormous bull elephant seals weighing up to two and a half tons rose from their lazy slumber and crashed together to fight over the apparently indifferent harems. And, amongst many other memorable wildlife moments, I watched with great relief as a sealion pup escaped just in the nick of time from an aggressive adult male.
Another short, low-level flight took me to Port Howard, a small sheep farming community spread around a pretty natural harbour. World-renowned for fly-fishing, it is also a great place to meet locals. With wildlife never far away, the harbour is an excellent place to spot Commerson’s dolphins.
I spent my last two nights on Carcass Island. Rob and Lorrain Mcgill, the friendly owners of the island, were great hosts and their stories and accounts of life in the Falklands were fascinating.
With a wonderfully remote location off the tip of West Falkland, Carcass Island is decidedly hilly and rugged. This most scenic island is also rat- and cat-free and is a fantastic place to see some of the 220 bird species that are to be found in the Falkland Islands - my favourite were the pretty oystercatchers with their distinctive long red beaks.
I could not have hoped for a better end to my trip than the full day spent on neighbouring West Point Island. With a total island population of 30,000 black-browed albatross, the Devil’s Nose rocky promontory is a breathtaking spot. For several peaceful and captivating hours I watched these graceful flying machines unfurl their tail feathers in practiced courtship dances before launching themselves off the steep cliffs, swooping down and gliding effortlessly out to sea.