Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Sea Lion Island: how much does your penguin weigh?

“The following passengers should check-in tomorrow for Sea Lion Island at 11.05.....”

This was the message we'd been waiting to hear from the Falkland Islands Radio Service (FIRS). It meant we were confirmed on the FIGAS (Falkland Island Government Air Service – acronyms are popular here!) flight the next day. No need for online check-in or boarding cards – just listen for your name on the 6pm News programme!

The next morning, we took a taxi the 2 miles to the airport at 10.45, and found we were the first to arrive! The airline representative checked our names off her list, then asked us to put our bags on the scales for weighing. All within the 14kg maximum.

Then, she asked me to step on the scales! As the planes only take 6 passengers, it's important for the pilot to know the exact weight in the plane. I explained I was wearing heavy boots, and, er, probably had a lot of loose change in my pockets, but it turned out I'd lost a kilo since arriving!

Afterwards, I spotted the excess luggage charges, and the freight charges for sheep and goats is £15 per animal (although its not clear to me how you get a sheep in the plane – it was a bit of a struggle for me!) Cats, chickens and penguins are flown for 90p per kilo!

Dogs and sheep £15, penguins 90p per kilo
The small terminal didn't take long to explore – a coffee machine, some maps, and a few rugby jerseys and hats for sale. After about 10 minutes, there was a flurry of activity as the 3 baggage handlers put on their heavy jackets and resumed their fire-fighting role, as a plane arrived from one of the outlying islands.

Passengers and baggage soon arrive in the terminal; the plane is refuelled, and then we are asked to squeeze into Britten-Norman Islander  

Britten-Norman Islander, and multi-tasking firemen

Seatbelts on, and we are off. Heading west towards Stanley and over the Lady Elizabeth, and then south to Sea Lion Island.

Lady Elizabeth in Stanley Harbour, and Yorke Bay beyond
After a happily-uneventful 35-minute flight watching the albatrosses skimming the waves about 1,200 feet below us, we land on the dirt airstrip on the island. Jenny, the Lodge Manager, greets us at the plane and asks us to step into the bucket of disinfectant!  A National Nature Reserve doesn't want alien species arriving!

A tasty lunch of home-made soup and bread is followed by an orientation tour in the Land Rover. As Jenny drives us round the island, she points out the main vantage points for different wildlife (“this beach is good for sea lions... that one for elephant seals....”,) and helps get our bearings on the 2,000 acre island.

Some visitors arrive by helicopter
The Lodge is at the eastern end of the island, overlooking 2 beaches with about 5,000 penguins on each beach, so if we get lost, we simply find the coast and follow it, and we will eventually get back to the lodge.

After that, we are free to explore, wander or just laze around in the comfortable lodge with it's well-stocked library and honesty bar!

There are about 6 guests today (although the lodge can hold 21), and we all wander off in different directions, cameras and binoculars at the ready.

penguin-free beach...
The island is now a National Nature Reserve, having removed the sheep and fences from what was once a working farm. There are no cats or rats on the island, so it has a profusion of birdlife breeding there, including 3 species of penguin, cormorants, snipe, skua, geese, gulls, teal, grebe, etc, etc...  And most birds have no fear of Man!

Upland Goslings

Try getting this close to a Snipe in the UK!
Magellanic Oystercatcher
Then there are the spectacular mammals. It's one of the few places anywhere that Southern Elephant Seals breed; Southern Sea Lions also come ashore to breed here, and the beaches are patrolled by pods of killer whales, looking for unsuspecting penguins or seals.

It's getting near the end of the breeding season, but many young birds and animals are just about to go into the sea for the first time, and many adult penguins and seals are in the process of renewing their feathers or fur (moulting), so are confined to land for another month or so.
Meeting the locals.

As befits a blog with this name, there are a few references to penguins, and Sea Lion Island didn't disappoint penguin-spotters. Three species (Gentoo, Magellanic and Rockhopper) breed in large numbers here.

Gentoo in foreground, Magellanic in rear
In a few weeks, most of them will have dispersed across the Southern Ocean or the Atlantic, some swimming as far as Antarctica or Brazil in search of food.

Young Magellanic penguins in their creche
 However, the Gentoo penguins usually stay in the local waters all year round, as there is a plentiful supply of their main food – lobster krill. Other penguins eat other species of krill and squid.

I like the Gentoo, as, if you sit quietly, they tend to sidle up close to you to see what you are about.

Gentoos getting closer...
They breed in large colonies about a kilometre from shore, and each day the adults will leave the chicks and waddle down to the beach to start hunting for food. Then, in the early evening, thousands of penguins scramble out of the sea and waddle all the way back to the hungry chicks.

Some of the more mature chicks wander down to the beach during the day and stand there, staring out to sea wondering when dinner will be coming home! The most adventurous even venture into the surf for a few yards, flapping and splashing like youngsters on a beach anywhere....until a giant petrel skims the waves, and they all scramble out for the safety of the beach!

What's 'e doin'?"
Once the huge colony is back together and parents and young (most penguins have 2 chicks) have met up again, the parents have one last hurdle before the chicks are fed.   Rather than regurgitating some tasty morsel of krill as soon as the chick pecks on the parent's beak, the adults run away from the whining chicks.

The chicks, often as big as the adult, give chase, and a high-speed, Keystone Cops-style game of tag ensues.  This is done, it is believed, so that the adults can see which chick is the stronger of the two, and so is more deserving of the food. It has a better chance of survival, so no point in wasting food on the weaker chick!

Needless to say, the noise and smell of around 10,000 squabbling Gentoo penguins can be quite overpowering, and photos just can't convey the whole experience!

Young Elephant Seal
 However, it is not just the wildlife that brings visitors....

HMS Sheffield memorial. Hit by Exocet about 30 miles from Sea Lion Island, 20 killed.
Next episode – why Magellanic penguins are hard to count; why a rare raptor is only found on a few Falklands Islands; and “when giants collide!”.



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