Sunday, 25 November 2012

Volunteer Point - Penguin-lovers Paradise!

[This is another in the series of observations from a UK expat living with wife in Stanley, Falklands.  November saw our first visitors from the UK, and so we had to show them the best of the islands.  They had already seen "David Attenborough" moments on Sealion Island, when Orcas snaffled seal pups for breakfast.
Would some penguins be of interest?....]
Johnsons Harbour.  Tranquil
The long spell of sunny, warm weather which had started around Remembrance Day, continued last week,  as we headed to Volunteer Point with our visitors from the UK.   Setting off at 8am in John's, our driver/guide, large 4x4, we drove into the hinterland of East Falklands, known as Camp (from "campo", Spanish for a field).  After about 90 minutes of undulating gravel roads, hills, and stone runs, we reached a fence which marked the end of the public road network and the start of the 54,000-acre farm, across which we would have to traverse to reach the penguin beach.
With added South American film crews....
Although only about 30 miles north of Stanley as the helicopter flies, our destination requires good navigational and driving skills, as there are only rough tracks to follow.  At Johnsons Harbour settlement, we were joined by 3 more 4x4s containing local guides and TV crews from Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.  "Hola", I said, practising my embryonic Spanish.  For some reason, they didn't interview me, but they did seem to spend a lot of time talking to the camera when in front of sheep or penguins.....
Eventually, once legs ahead been stretched and cigarettes extinguished, we set off in convoy for another 2 hours of bumpy driving, stopping frequently so that the epic journey could be recorded for Latin American viewers.
"By the left, quick march"
At long last, the sea came into view, and as we drove along a grassy bank above the long, white sandy beach, more and more penguins appeared. Soon, we were joining them on the beach, watching as they dithered at the waters edge - some of them never having swum before; others were well aware of the dangers in the surf.
This way?
 Like many social birds, some penguins seem to find safety in numbers, and it is rare to see individuals walking about.  The desire to stay in a group was evident, but where to go?  Who to follow?
Or that way?
Hotly pursued by camera crews, the King Penguins waddled into the shallow water, only to emerge a few moments later, as if surprised at the water temperature!
Come on in, the water's lovely!
Falklands Conservation have put tracking devices on some penguins, and these have enabled scientists to show that penguins from this beach swim over 1200 miles to Antarctica and back in search of food.
The water IS cold...
Other Falklands penguins travel further.  Some of the penguins I saw at Edinburgh Zoo last year were born on this beach!
No point in getting out of your depth.
The King Penguins, unlike other species, are to be found here all year round, as they have a complex breeding cycle.  The parents' role can take around 13 months, so only 2 chicks are born every 3 years.  The adults also need to moult to develop new feathers.  The chicks also moult from their downy feathers over several weeks.
Photographer filming himself.  It's not about the penguins!
So, at any time of the year, this beach presents an insight into the life of penguins on dry land.  As well as King, there are also large rookeries of breeding Gentoo penguins and Magellanics in their burrows (although we did see one whose nest was above ground!).  However, Magellanics leave the land around March, and Gentoos disperse more widely once breeding is finished.
"I'm a bird.  I can fly!"
All this activity and variety provides a fascinating day out for the visitor.  The Gentoo and Magellanic penguins are currently sitting on eggs, and some Kings are doing so, too.   But the vast majority of birds seem to be adolescent chicks, waiting for their first set of adult plumage to appear.
"When's breakfast, Mum?" "Give me a chance - I'm not up, yet!"
And, as ever, chicks are hungry.  If the parents are ashore, they pester them for food, repeatedly pecking and mewing to gain attention......
"Feed me!"
So, we spent a few hours just wandering around, taking care not to get too close to the penguins.   But this isn't always easy, given their curiosity, and lack of fear of humans (despite our rather bad record of exploiting their cousins for oil.....)
New season all-in-one mohair outfit
Topping up the tan....
Larry and Laura (sitting) take it all in.
You shall go to the Ball!
Some penguins get adult feathers sooner than others....
The cool look this summer....Adult feathers start at the feet, and work up!
Chatting with the kids...
Chicks need to keep cool, but also keep their feathers dry.
We noticed a large number of chicks congregating around some ponds, dipping their feet in, presumably to keep cool in the warm weather.
Life-guard at the pool
Kings, with Gentoo in background
The Kings are the stars, as the Gentoos find out.
Left, right, left, right.......

Several hundred photos later, finally leaving the beach.
Eventually, we had to drag ourselves away from our feathered friends.  The 4x4s were waiting and the film crews had more shots to take of cars going up hills and through puddles...The convoy set off across featureless pastures.
Opening wire gates is not as easy as it sounds......
Returning across the farm, the landscape didn't seem all that familiar, so we were glad we'd used the services   of John, a former Royal Marine who had settled in the Falklands in 1985, after a spell on duty here.  He gave some insights into the way of life of Falklanders, and showed us how to open and close the (to us) unusual wire gates, dotted across the farm.
Filming the capabilities of a Land Rover...
On the way back to Stanley, we saw the smoke from large grass fires in the distance.  The ground has been tinder-dry for weeks, and these fires had, apparently, been started by tracer bullets fired during "live" Army exercises.

The wind fanned the flames for days, and despite the efforts of over a hundred military and civilian fire-fighters, the fire spread for over 20 kilometres.  We could see and smell the smoke in Stanley, 25 miles away.

However, just as the excellent weather had started as our friends arrived, so it broke just after they left. Violent wintry squalls returned to dampen down the flames and remind us why penguins like to breed here!

Endless blue skies and countless penguins.  A grand day out!  I think our friends enjoyed the trip.  They've plenty of photos to sort through during a damp British winter.......

Hasta Luego


  1. Since thinking about (and then applying for) a job on The Falkland Islands I have been reading your blog/looking at your photos with interest! I am happy to announce I got the job and will be arriving in August! Keep up the blogging! :)

    1. Hi Emily, I'm chuffed you follow the blog, and congratulations on your new job! Don't forget, I tend to put a gloss on life here - I don't take many photos in the rain, for example, or mention it's a 70-mile round-trip to the cinema!

      If I can help with any questions, please let me know. EG - don't put your favourite kitchen utensils in storage! :-)

      I'd be interested to know what you are doing once you get here. If you want my email or phone number, let me know.


    2. I do love the cinema... :( But hey life's an adventure - that's why I applied!! I'm a teacher!

  2. After reading your blog I KNOW I don't want to live there! Brave Emily I say. I like good food and creature comforts on hand way too much. I do, however, love to read your blog and enjoy your excellent photos. Enjoying The Falklands from afar.

    1. Sorry, Annabelle. It sounds as if I'm not getting across the creature comforts of the Falklands. Yesterday, for example, there was a Craft Fair, full of hand-made creations from talented people, who knit, sew, crochet, make soap, etc, instead of watching penguins!

      Then there's the musical and performing people: singing, acting, playing. On Friday, (St Andrew's Day), there's a ceilidh! Now, where's my kilt...?