Sunday, 19 February 2012

Sea Lion Island - Where Giants Collide!

Elephant Seals, 3,000 kilos!
For a special birthday in the household, I arranged a brief trip to an outlying island in the Falklands.  My previous post about Sea Lion Island mentioned the Gentoo penguins. I don't know where the name, Gentoo, comes from, but the names of the other two species of penguin on the island have better known derivations.

Look behind you!  2 Gentoos
One is the Magellanic – named after the famous Portugese explorer, who first saw them in 1520 in Patagonia, where he thought they were flightless geese. Their lack of fear of man was to be heavily exploited by visiting ships which were running short of food.

Pingu No-mates
They are also known as Jackass penguins, (because of their braying call), and are the same species as can be found at Boulders Beach near Cape Town and in Namibia. They were first seen by another Portugese explorer, Bartholomew Dias, south of Luderitz on the Namibian coast in 1487.

Magellanic penguin creche
Using the knowledge gained by Dias, Vasco de Gama followed his route a few years later and opened up the trading route to India, sailing round the Southern tip of Africa, into the Indian Ocean. Dias named the famous point as “Cape of Storms”. But realising this wasn't attracting a lot of shipping, someone later renamed it “Cape of Good Hope”!

Magellanic penguins waiting for a clear run to the sea.
So, although the first Europeans to see penguins were from Portugal, no-one is sure where the name “penguin” comes from. Some people think it's Welsh!

Magellanic penguin guarding burrow
Anyway, no-one is sure, either, how many Magellanic penguins there are as they live in burrows and are very difficult to count!

Rockhopper Penguins
“You never forget your first Rockhopper. With massive eyebrows that make them look like mini-Dennis Healey, these small but incredibly feisty birds seem to epitomise the Falkland Islands. Tough, yet beautiful, rugged but characterful, and definitely full of surprises.”
Lyn Hughes, editor of Wanderlust magazine

The smallest pengiun on Sea Lion Island is the Rockhopper. These were also heavily exploited by man, and , on the tour, we passed an out-of-place brick building. It looked like an old bakery with a couple of rusting oven doors. We found out it was where the rockhoppers used to be boiled down for their valuable oil!

In a local recipe book, I found a recipe for Penguin Pavlova, but it only uses the eggs! I've read that few Antarctic explorers ate penguins, except in dire emergency (seal was preferred), although the very successful Scottish National Expedition of 1904 reportedly enjoyed the penguin dinners as a break from their usual monotonous diet. No comment!
LINK to Scottish Expedition

Rockhoppers come ashore in the austral spring to breed and moult. They often share cliff-top rookeries (for safety) with cormorants and albatrosses, but unlike those birds, they have to hop up every inch of the way. No wonder they don't run around much when they reach the top!

There were a few cormorant nesting sites that had no rockhoppers, but these were on top of 100 foot vertical cliffs.

Clifftop Cormorant colony
The vast number of cormorants provide safety in numbers for the Rockhoppers.
Royal Cormorant
Royal Cormorants
Space is at a premium
no fear!
Incredible sight, and smell!
On other parts of Sea Lion island, the cliffs are low and allow a safe vantage point to watch the other creatures that come ashore to breed.   As the name suggests, Sea Lions are found here, relaxing in rock poools after a hard season bringing up babies.

Southern Sea Lion

But dwarfing all other sea mammals, apart from whales, are the scores of Southern Elephant Seals that haul themselves ashore on the long, sandy beaches. The males weigh about 4 times that of the female - about 3,000 kg, and are about 16 feet (5 metres) in length.
Intrepid photographer and elelphant seals
Luckily for observers, these animals are mainly docile and placid once the mating season has finished.  They generally loll around in groups waiting for their fur to moult, before returning to the sea in March
Sneaking past slumbering elephant seal
However, this abundance of large seals brought predators to the island.  On both nights we were there, we strolled down to the beach around dusk to watch the pods of killer whales patrolling just off-shore.

Jeremy trying to attract an orca
These whales will eat penguins and young seals, as they make their first forays into the sea.  But the older and wiser adults generally relaxed and conserved their energy, that will be needed for the months at sea. Although there the occasional disagreements about who has the most comfy bit of beach.
Don't get too close
You looking at  me?
Move over, shorty....

Would you mind moving?!

Striated Cara-Cara.  Very few left.  

The Cara-cara is known as Johnny Rook in the Falklands and is a very rare bird, but remarkably easy to approach.  It attacks its prey, usually young, flightless birds, by running at it, and striking with talons and beak.  It hasn't done well on islands where cats have been introduced!

Diddle-dee berries.  Local delicacy.

Sea Lion Island is carpeted in places by the native Diddle Dee bush which produce a profusion of red berries, often used in jam.

All in all, this is a wonderful place, and we felt very privileged to have the chance to experience it.  The hospitality was generous, and, once the sun had set, there was lively conversations with visitors and locals in the bar.  Then, one more nightcap, and off to bed to count penguins.


  1. Peter - I absolutely love your blog ... the photos are tremendous. The post with the plane really struck home with me after flying in a similar fashion from North Island NZ to South Island NZ many times in a similar craft - very scary! I heard a brilliant play about Falklands on Radio 4 yesterday (18.2.2012) - I wonder if you can 'listen again' out there? The "would you mind moving" photo reminds me of my last beach photo! Ha ha!

    1. You're very kind, Annabelle. Your photos of Richmond and Bushy Park, remind me of what I left behind, but I am really enjoying the experience here. Will try to find the play but the Internet is a bit restricted here. (Free access between midnight and 6am, otherwise expensive!).

      How did you discover my blog? Were you one of my Nordic Walkers? I'm curious as to how people know its there! many thanks, Peter