JAN 9: Falkland Islands
Monday, January 09, 2017
Saunders Island Settlement, Falkland Islands
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Jan 9th, 2017: Falkland Islands – Saunders Island and West Point Island
• Tom Sharpe Lecture: The Geology of the Falkland Islands
Today was a very long and busy day... We started out with relatively calm seas and 15-20 knot winds.
The Falkland Islands were named for Falkland Sound, which was originally named by Capt. John Strong in 1690 after Viscount Falkland, one of the owners of Strong's ship the Welfare. The Falklands are an archipelago consisting of two main islands (East and West Falkland) and 778 smaller islands, with a total land area of roughly the size of Connecticut.
Saunders Island is a small island (~ 31,000 acres) located off the northwest coast of West Falkland Island (see map). It is owned by the Pole-Evans family and is a working sheep farm. For most of the year, there are only about 5 residents occupying the island.
We were sent in Zodiacs to shore (10 per Zodiac) on this relatively calm day and landed on a sandy/muddy beach, right in front of a Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) colony. These relatively small penguins, are about 3 ft high and weigh about 12 lbs.
The island has about 11,000 breeding pairs of the Black-browed albatross and four species of penguins breeding: Gentoo, Magellanic, King, and Rock-hopper – not bad since there are 18 species of penguins in the Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic region, and we have a good chance of seeing 8 species total, four of which are here. Early rise today, around 5am so we can get out onto the islands before the winds and possible rain pick up.
In order that we preserve the integrity, uniqueness and wildness of each site, we are required to clean our boots and submerge the bottoms in a Zircon bath before leaving and returning to the ship to rid them of any biological contaminants (including organic debris and seeds, etc.) that could be spread from previous and/or future sites.
With 170 paying passengers on the Ocean Diamond, it took quite awhile to get all of us to shore in the Zodiacs. Our initial reaction was amazement at how many penguins there were, spanning the entire landscape (probably 5,000-10,000), including the hills beyond as far as the eye could see to the far rise. Gentoo penguins, the first species we encountered on the beach, live up to about 20 yrs. Their squawkey sounds pervaded the entire beachfront. All penguins feed from the sea, although most choose to occupy high ground that requires them to climb slowly up, up, up to higher windy elevations. Processions of adults can be seen coming and going at all times between their nests and the sea, with no apparent recognition of those traveling in the other direction. One reason is reducing the risk of being preyed on by leopard seals, their only major predator in the near-shore marine environment.
Just a few meters up the beach was an enormous (5 ft across) ancient boiling pot that had been in use since the 1700s to render down Southern fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) and elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) for their oil. Bull elephant seals can weigh over 6,000 lbs and get to be more than 20 ft long from snout to flipper tips. They swim thousands of miles out to sea to forage for squid and fish, making two-hour dives to 3,000 ft depth or more. The hunters would use heavy 5-7 ft long clubs to bludgeon the seals to death with one blow. This site was originally covered with tussock grass, which was all cut down to fuel the boiling pots.
After wiping out all the grasses for miles around, the sealers found they could toss penguins into the firebox below the pots as these fat laden birds burned quite hot and allowed them to continue slaughtering the fur seals and elephant seals till they were extirpated from this island. This practice was followed throughout the region and resulted in the near extinction of these species with the records showing hundreds of thousands, and possibly several million seals and fur seals were killed between the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s, mostly by American sealers.
After observing the Gentoos, we hiked about 1.5 mi to an extensive rookery of hundreds of Black-browed albatrosses and Rock-hopper penguins with a few Magellanic penguins sprinkled in for good luck. They have established their colonies on a relatively steeply sloped region of the island. We were instructed to always stay a good 15 ft away from any wildlife (referring to the penguins and Albatrosses), so as not to disturb them. This worked ok, but many times they would walk right up to us while we were standing there or sitting on the ground taking pictures.
Here are a few intimate moments with the Rock-hoppers...
Beyond this mixed colony was another rookery containing a mix of several hundred Black-browed albatrosses, Rock-hoppers, and Imperial blue-eyed shags (Phalacrocorax atriceps, a type of cormorant) – all nesting in close proximity to each other.
We observed all three species doing courtship dances and preening each other, incubating eggs, and squawking at predatory Skua birds overhead as they tried to snatch an unguarded chick or hatchling. Most of the Rock-hopper chicks, which stand upright and have white breasts and downy brown/black back, were huddled together in groups called crèches, waiting for a parent to return and feed them.
The Albatrosses make this funny neck muffler-looking nest out of mud and grasses that sticks about 14" above the ground where they lay a single egg. Their chicks are covered in fuzzy mottled white/gray down and have this disproportionately long black bill. The Imperial shags are quite pretty and have these odd blueberry sized orange protuberances sticking out from the base of their upper bill (used for courtship and only present during the breeding season). Their chicks were mostly just a ball of fuzzy brown down that lay splayed out flat beneath the parent with their long black feet sticking out at all sorts of funny angles. It was a terrific morning and we could have stayed there for many more hours being entertained by all the antics, squabbles, dancing, calling, and funny postures these birds regularly exhibited.
We were also fortunate to see several other fascinating water birds here as well: Ruddy headed geese, Greater upland geese, Kelp geese and Falkland Island flightless steamer ducks.
WEST POINT ISLAND: (see map)
Wind is expected to pick up later in the day, but we lucked out and were able to land here with relative ease. This was a dry landing, as we unloaded our gang onto a dock. This was another spot where Rock-hoppers, Albatrosses and the Shag occupied the same neighborhood, but up on some high cliff areas.
The birds were mostly within or adjacent to Tussac grass, and we observed them by walking along a trail through the thick and tall (5-6 ft high) Tussac, where some of them were so close, we were within a foot of both the Albatrosses and Rock-hoppers. Some curious Rock-hoppers even wandered onto the Tussac trail we were on and we had to move out of the way to let them pass. They seemed to be organized in a two or three tiered arrangement with Albatrosses on the upper level, then the Shags in the middle, and the Rock-hoppers below. From our vantage point, we could also see the roughly mile-long trail that the Rock-hoppers take to go out to sea to feed, AND… that same trail coming back where they had to hop-hop-hop up a very steep (probably 30-40 degree) slope, one little hop at a time. Seems like they would be so tired by the time they finished that journey, they would be exhausted and probably used up all the energy they gained from their journey. Some observations from the Tussac vantage points:
Upon returning from our hike, we ran across a Sei whale skeleton that had been hauled up from the beach and reassembled way up on a high slope on the island... We also stopped off at the Pole-Evans homestead, where they put out an enormous spread for us of tea and pastries. Very accommodating! Everyone crowded into their TINY dining room and flowed out into their garden area. They had an amazing collection (>100) of china tea cups which the husband kept washing to keep up with the follow of us afternoon 'tea totallers’. Their house was surrounded by some very lovely gardens and oddly up in the evergreens that served as a wind block from the prevailing westerlies and along the roof were about a dozen turkey vultures. It was strange to see these birds calmly perched just a few feet up in the trees. We could really see their amazingly unattractive blood red heads with the pale large hooked beak jutting out the end. Its unlikely they’re going to win any ‘pretty bird’ contests.
The wind and waves picked up substantially and our Zodiac ride back to the ship was more challenging and exciting than the ride out to the island, although the boat crew did a great job in handling it all and safely depositing us back on board. Once we divested ourselves of our cold weather gear, we had another of our science lectures, this one by Tom Sharpe about the Geology of the Falkland Islands.