Falkland Islands – Surprise wildlife package

Before coming South, whenever someone mentioned the Falklands, I would think of barren and windy islands with not much to offer. However, I was pleasantly surprised with the reality. Many of the guests on board the ship have the same mentality as I once did, seeing the Falklands simply as a convenience stop to stretch their legs before we get down to South Georgia and Antarctica. They most definitely are not anticipating the beauty of sites such as West Point Island and the densities of tame wildlife that these islands offer.

A Falklands beach – not what you’d expect
Black browed albatross chicks at West Point

The Falklands are home to 60-70% of the world’s breeding black-browed albatross and host the largest albatross colony in the world at Steeple Jason. Seeing thousands of these birds proudly perched on their nest structures for as far as the eye can see is a breathtaking experience.

Black browed adult cruising over the heads of grounded chicks
Adult and chick
There are several hundred thousand birds breeding on the island

Many of the colonies are also home to thousands of rockhopper penguins early in the season and watching the entertaining relationships between these species is endless fun. The sounds that accompany these interspecific relations are also entertaining.

The two species can often be seen disagreeing with each other
And if it’s not the black browed albatross the problem is with, then it’s their neighbours

Both the rockhoppers and the black browed albatross tend to pick the most exposed areas of the islands to breed. The albatross are dependent on the wind in order to aid their takeoffs and the penguins use the exposed coasts in order to deter predators.

Black browed in flight over Steeple Jason
The wind helps both with taking off and landing

The islands are also home to magellanic, king and gentoo penguins and if you’re lucky you may also see macaronis hiding within the rockhoppers.

Magellanic Penguin on carcass island. These are burrow nesting penguins and so are never too far from their holes
Gentoo penguin playing in the surf at Bull Point

There is also some beautiful, if a little flat, hiking to be had over these islands and you’re never too far away from geese, raptors and songbirds (especially on the rat free islands).

Ruddy headed goose in the tussock
Long tailed meadowlark or military starling are always a bright highlight
Upland geese in flight
Variable hawk overhead on Carcass Island
Cobb’s wren are a Falkland’s endemic and are only found on the islands that are rat free
Jonny rook or striated caracara are part of the falcon family. These are never too far from breeding colonies on the islands

And when you get onto the sea the wildlife doesn’t stop. There’s a healthy population of steamer ducks patrolling the coastline and both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins are often around and keen to play.

Commerson’s dolphins off the shore of Saunder’s
Falkland steamer ducks are very territorial and can sometimes kill each other in disputes
Peale’s off the bow
Fin and Sei whales are frequently seen fishing in the rich waters surrounding the islands

One final albatross picture, because they are awesome

Adult and chick


Link to previous blog. Gold Harbour, South Georgia

Few images from St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

no images were found

X Rays, Oil Spill and The Navy … again!

This entry is part 29 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

Welcome to another week in the life of a British Antarctic Survey scientist! This week’s events include Oil Spill and X Ray training and, with it being an international weekend in the football calendar, I have news from the South Georgian national team’s latest outing.

Lenticular clouds behind a king penguin at sunrise
Lenticular clouds behind a king penguin at sunrise

Living in South Georgia involves all sorts of weird and wonderful training. Part of living in such a small team in such an isolated location involves being prepared for everything, including tsunamis, shipwrecks and fires.

We also play an important role as first responders to any spillages of potentially hazardous chemicals within a manageable size. Obviously, it is necessary for all the team to be familiar with the Emergency Action Plan and know how to deploy all the equipment. So, this month we rolled out all the equipment in order to first control and then clear up a mock oil spill around the King Edward Point wharf.

Oil Spill Training
Oil Spill Training – booms to contain a spill

We are lucky to have a doctor and surgery here on South Georgia. However, there is only so much that Doc can do alone so it is therefore necessary that we are all trained with some level of medical care in order to assist her or, God forbid, treat her if she hurts herself.

This involves intensive training in the UK before deployment, followed by weekly Doc School once down south. On this week’s agenda was X-Raying. Equipment is limited here so our X Ray machine uses film and we must be able to develop the pictures. Our subject for this practice is an old, frozen Gentoo Penguin from the freezer! You’ll be glad to know it had no broken bones.

Lewis X Raying a frozen Gentoo
Lewis X-Raying a frozen Gentoo

The final piece of training for this month also involved a Major Incident Drill for which the Royal Navy provided the mock, unco-operative casualties. The scenario was a shipwrecked fishing vessel full of conveniently non-English speaking fisherman.

HMS Clyde
HMS Clyde
HMS Clyde in front of Grytviken
HMS Clyde in front of Grytviken

After we had saved the lives of all the people worth saving, we took advantage of the good weather to have another game of football.

Team Photo
Team Photo

The game was strongly contended and this Navy team represented a much greater challenge than previous games. Meteorological conditions were perfect in contrast to the pitch, which is made up of mire, bog and rock. This didn’t affect the level of the play, though, with both teams doing what only the true greats can do by adapting their style of play to the conditions.

Late challenges were more down to the boggy playing conditions than anything else
Late challenges were more down to the boggy playing conditions than anything else

With the wind behind them, the home side settled into the conditions more quickly and were soon peppering the Navy goal with shots. Fortunately for the away team, their keeper possessed many cat-like qualities, pulling out some blinding saves for the cameras.

Noone told us they had a cat playing in goal
No-one told us they had a cat playing in goal!

Tackles were flying in all over the pitch, some timed to perfection but mostly horribly late. Less out of maliciousness but more as a result of the bobbly terrain and low fitness levels.

More mistimed challenges
More mistimed challenges

Not even The Cat in goal could put a stop to the “tica taca” passing which lead to the opening goal. The home team’s passing, which can only be compared to Barcelona, tore through the away defence with Cowie eventually finishing the move and slotting the ball under the helpless keeper.

Cowie opening the scoring for the home team after a flowing move
Cowie opening the scoring for the home team after a flowing move

With the first half approaching its climax, the game was interrupted by an almighty scream. Many dived for cover, concluding that the only possible cause of a scream like that could be a shooting and that maybe we were under attack. However, we eventually discovered this wasn’t the case, but it was almost as bad  – the away team’s right back had been tackled by a tuft of grass.

The devonshire ambulance service coming to the rescue - miraculously the casualty walked again
The Devonshire ambulance service coming to the rescue – miraculously, the casualty was able to walk again

With the casualty carried off, the half drew to an uneventful close, allowing the away team to compose themselves.

The photographer was obviously so thrilled by the match they decided to take pictures of the cloud
The photographer was obviously so enthralled by the match, he decided to take pictures of the clouds instead

Revitalised by their half time oranges and cigarettes, the away team came out a changed team and with the help of the wind, restricted South Georgia to their own half. So relaxed was The Cat about the threat to his goal, after a few minutes he opted to have a cuppa. With the help of some valiant defending and some truly abysmal finishing, the home team hung on and seemed to be heading for an unlikely victory.

The cat was obviously not being worked hard enough in the second half
The Cat was obviously not being worked hard enough in the second half

But with the clock ticking away, the home team did what British Teams do so well and crumbled. With what can only be described as a howler by the keeper (who had been kindly donated by the Navy due to uneven numbers) gifting the equaliser to the Navy by fumbling a  shot, which probably wouldn’t have reached the goal, to the feet of their striker to tap in.

Spectators in fancy dress running down to watch the finale
Spectators in fancy dress running down to watch the finale

With only seconds left, the Navy sensed blood. No sooner had the game kicked off again, the ball was rolling out for an away corner. The Navy piled men forward and after an overhit corner was caught wickedly by the wind and thrown on to the crossbar, it dropped into the six yard box. Tired from their intrepid second-half efforts, South Georgia were slow to react and the ball was scrambled into the net.

After a hard fought game spirits were still high and the home team clapped the deserved winners off the pitch
After a hard fought game spirits were still high and the home team clapped the deserved winners (led by their Man Of The Match) off the pitch

It is always good fun to see people from the outside world even when they beat you at football. The HMS Clyde team were no exception to this and we were happy to invite them into the bar for drinks after the big game.

We look forward to their next visit and hopefully a rematch!

King Penguins seeing off HMS Clyde
King Penguins seeing off HMS Clyde

The Journey Begins…

My adventure finally begins! First stop Brize Norton in order to catch a flight to the Falklands via Ascension Island. Didn’t really know what to expect on the flight, there were rumours of a 19.5 hours of discomfort without any in flight entertainment but fortunately this was not the case. In fact it was pretty standard if a little outdated, the only real difference was that we were brought food and drinks almost every hour, even throughout the night! Large calorie intake is necessary to keep up the RAF physique obviously!

We had a brief 2 hour stop at Ascension island where I was assured that I would easily add the endemic Ascension Frigatebird to my world list. However, it seems I was lied to!

Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands
Giant Petrel passing over head in the Falklands

When we finally arrived in the Falklands the weather was beautiful even though I was assured this most definitely would not be the case. For those not fortunate enough to have visited it, it’s very similar to the Western Isles. We didn’t really get much time to explore as we were into the Governor’s Office first thing the following morning in order for Roger, our Base Commander, to be made a magistrate of South Georgia. Shortly after, we were being whisked off to board the Pharos Fisheries Patrol Vessel to sail to South Georgia.

Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for South Georgia
Cape Petrel cruising behind our boat as we leave Falkland for South Georgia

Our cruise to South Georgia took us 5 days and our only responsibilities were to eat and sleep, which gave us loads of time to sit up on the bridge and search for pelagic wildlife!

As we were waiting to leave harbour, we were able to see good numbers of King Shags, Skuas and Southern Giant Petrels, not a bad start! After a couple of small delays we were eventually escorted out of the harbour by our pilot vessel who herself was escorted by a group of 3 Commerson’s Dolphins.

As we left towards more open waters, both of our escorts left us, but luckily our sightings continued. Several small groups of the migratory Magellanic Penguins were observed logging (resting) on the surface before I got to see my first ever Gentoo Penguins, acting similarly. Conditions were absolutely perfect for wildlife watching with flat seas, no wind and blue skies and it wasn’t long before we were joined by our second species of dolphins. This time, there were three Peale’s Dolphins bow riding and performing for us.

One of three Peele's Dolphins Escorting us on our crossing
One of three Peele’s Dolphins escorting us on our crossing

As we continued away from Falkland waters after dinner, we were joined by good numbers of Cape Petrels, Black Browed Albatross’s, Atlantic Fulmers and more Southern Giant Petrels with small numbers of Wilson’s Petrel and Antarctic Prions also present. Not a bad haul for half a day at sea, buzzing is an understatement! As the sunset drew on and we congregated on deck to look for the illusive green flash* unsuccessfully, we were rewarded with the consolation of a distant whale blow and my first ever Wandering Albatross! They are flipping massive! What a day!

* see “green flash” in Wikipedia.

Close up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the dayClose up shot of one of the many Black Browed Albatross that followed us for the day