Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Dolphin display

[Tales of everyday life in Stanley, Falkland Islands.  This week, the natural wonders relegate the politics to the back page.....]

Nordic Walker with King Penguin  looking for company
I'm lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time outdoors, and especially around the coast, near Stanley.   My part-time role as a Warden at a penguin rookery means I get paid to stand on a headland in all weathers.  When there's a lull between tourist buses arriving, I tend to scan the bay for movement.
At speed and in formation....
On about 50% of the days I've worked there this year, I've seen dolphins, so I know they are almost always around, if you have the patience or luck to spot them.  Quite often they appear as the last tourist gets back on the bus!
Completely clear
But, last Sunday was exceptional.  I was walking with my wife at one of my favourite spots, where hundreds of penguins can be see at the other side of a barbed-wire fence (indicating a mine-field).  We were about to leave, when we saw the familiar triangular fins of dolphins, in the distance.  However, instead of the normal slow patrol of the  bay, with fins appearing above the surface about every 30 seconds, this pod of about 8 dolphins lined up and then thrashed the water with their tails

Then they accelerated to a speed I had never seen before, pushing a bow-wave through the water like a convoy of small  speedboats.  I assume they were driving fish  ahead of them, and occasionally they leapt high out of the water.  In no time at all, they had covered the half-mile or so from the far side of the bay, and were out of sight.

Sorry for the quality of these pictures and video, but I felt lucky to have witnessed it at all, and it wasn't easy to keep the camera steady!


Friday, 22 February 2013

News from 51 degrees South

[Occasional observations on life in the Falkland Islands, from an expat living in Stanley]

 No great theme this week - just a few snippets.....
Striated Caracara, Sea Lion Island

Personal ad. in Penguin News -  - online subscription is good value.)

"The Falkland Islands are a special place in the midst of the turmoil of this world.
We are grateful to Stanley Police station for their outstanding contribution to the sense of security enjoyed by our families (and to recover our stolen car radio)".

In light of the horse / beef scandal in Europe, one of the Supermarkets in Stanley has taken out a full-page advert to reassure customers that they can trust  the food they buy from the store ......

"..all our products contain no horse meat."
Cod Fillet - "100% Cod.  No traces of seahorse"
Radishes - "100% Radish: contains no horseradish"
Lambs Navy Rum - "We would like to assure customers that Red Rum has been removed from sale".
Any guesses what this queue in Stanley is for?
Last night, I attended a talk from the team who re-created the famous journey of Sir Ernest Shackleton.  They used, as far as possible, the same kit, clothes, and food as the 1914 expedition, which set out to walk across Antarctica.  It was truly amazing what they went through - an 800-mile sail in a small boat, then crossing a mountain range covered in glaciers and crevasses.
For more details of the incredible journey, see here >
and watch out for the documentary from Discovery Channel.
Also in Penguin News are numerous notices for job vacancies.....
Vacancies in the Falklands Islands Government -
Deputy Head Teacher (Infant and Junior School)
Part-time Cook
Part-time Home Help
Female Prison Officer
Accounting Assistant
Government House Admin Officer

Rockhopper penguin waiting for his new, waterproof plumage

Non-Government Vacancies -
Customer Service Assistants
Office Manager
Warehouse Assistants
Chef at Sea Lion Lodge
Finance Support Officer (MOD)
Business Support Officer (MOD)
(The MOD (Ministry of Defence) jobs are based at Mount Pleasant, 35 miles from Stanley)
Maintenance/Security person for the docks
Part-time cleaners and gardeners.
Falklands Islands TV are looking for - News Reporter/ Presenter; Camera Operator/Editor.

And a 38-room extension is planned for the Malvina House Hotel.

So, it seems the economy is doing well, despite the weather causing problems for cruise ships anchoring in the harbour.  More news soon.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Sealion Island - clear and present danger (for young ones).

[An occasional insight into life in the Falklands for some expats from the suburbs of London.  This week, we do our tourist bit, while showing a visiting friend around.]

After months of waiting, our friend (let's call her "Bx") was finally arriving at Mount Pleasant Airport, 35 miles down a very bumpy road from Stanley, the main town.  Despite the lack of traffic on the roads, we contrived to arrive after the weekly LAN flight from Chile had touched down.  But, luckily, the formalities at the small airport delayed  Bx about an hour, so we managed to be there when she emerged from Customs and Immigration.

(Usually the flight is virtually empty, but there was a major conference in Stanley last week, and delegates were arriving 'en masse'.)
Bull Sea Lion heading for Tussac grass
Bx was only in the Falklands for a week, so we planned to tour East Falklands and visit an island that was good for wildlife.  She also had a strong interest in the 1982 War, so we hoped to see some people and sights associated with that.  However, we had underestimated how helpful Falklanders can be.
55 stones, 770lbs.,  350kg of rippling muscles.  3 times the size of the female.
Our first stop was a Farmhouse self-catering cottage near the San Carlos landing beaches, where British troops came ashore in 1982.  Although self-catering,  we enjoyed a delicious dinner and breakfast, due to the owners taking pity on me forgetting to bring food!  Over breakfast, we chatted with the owners who were interested to know if Bx knew anyone in the Falklands.  She admitted that she'd exchanged Christmas cards 30 years earlier with a couple who ran a farm, but assumed they had passed away, as they had been elderly then, and contact had been lost.  However, our hosts reassured her that the couple were in their 90s,  and living in Stanley!
Very few rockhoppers still around.
  A few days later, we bumped into someone else who knew the farming couple, and assured us that Bx would be made welcome to say "Hello!".  So, we popped round to the sheltered accommodation and introduced ourselves.  The ex-farmer was happy to chat about his time on the farm:  "100,000 acres - took a while to get around on a horse!", but just meeting him had been rewarding and totally unexpected.  It was typical of how Falklanders try to make a visit special. (By the way, 100,000 acres is slightly bigger than the Isle of Wight!).
Striated caracara.  Very rare.
Thereafter, the week ran more to plan:  seeing penguins at Gypsy Cove; enjoying some excellent meals in Stanley;  visiting outlying communities like Goose Green and Darwin.

And to make sure Bx saw as much Falklands wildlife in a short space of time, we also had a flying visit to the Nature Reserve that is Sealion Island.
Gentoo penguins
After a 40-minute flight in an 8-seater plane, with Bx sitting beside the pilot, we arrived in time to squeeze into a LandRover taking guests to the far end of the island, about 5 miles away.   Pausing only to grab a packed lunch, we headed off on grass tracks to see the residents.

Caracara hoping, in vain, for some crumbs.
Passing geese, skuas, shags, terns, and two old horses, we were dropped off near the memorial to the HMS Sheffield, which had been sunk by an Exocet missile near the island in the '82 war.
Dreaming of squid.....
We knew from a previous visit, that this spot was where the Rockhopper penguins bred, and there was clear evidence thousands had been there until recently.  But, sadly for us, all but six had now left the island and returned to the ocean for another year.
Is that a wink?
Undeterred, we set off along the cliffs to explore the island.  Near a sheltered bay, we encountered a huge bull Sea Lion, which I was quite glad not to have stumbled across in the tussac grass.  He was definitely unhappy with our presence, so we backed off to find a quieter spot to have lunch.
Further along the cliffs, we found a ledge which allowed us to look down on snoozing sea lions, without disturbing them.  We were soon joined by a curious Caracara, a very rare bird, which is mainly found in the outlying Falkland Islands.  Although it is obviously a raptor, its preferred method of attack is to run at prey and jump on it!  A great strategy for taking ground-nesting birds, especially flightless ones, but not so useful when you meet cats for the first time.   So, the Striated Caracara is restricted to islands where cats have not been introduced.
"Oi, Big Boy! Over here!"  
After lunch, we strolled through the dunes and came across a monster of the deep - a male elephant seal.  The males weigh up to 3 tonnes, mostly blubber and fur (which is why they were hunted, almost to extinction).   They spend a few months of the year on remote beaches like those on Sea Lion Island to breed and renew their fur.
These behemoths can hold their breath for over an hour under water, but at this time of year, they are largely conserving energy, gently snoozing in groups tightly squashed together.   When they were being killed for their (blubber) oil, men would sit on their backs for amusement, and ride the bucking bronco.
But we saw one seal with a bad gash on its back bucking and twisting in pain, as small birds pecked away at the cut.   I didn't fancy getting too close....
Skuas defending their potential meal of a gull chick.
Jenny, the excellent hostess at SeaLion Lodge, informed us that the breeding season for some animals seemed to be a few weeks advanced (hence the lack of Rockhopper penguins), and others, such as skuas, were delayed.
Gull mobbing Skuas.
Normally, skuas will viciously attack anyone walking near their young, but we were amazed to be able to walk unscathed past fluffy chicks.  However, the normal prey for skuas, penguin chicks, were now too large for the skuas to catch, so they were experimenting with other prey.
Gentoo chick on nest, showing its toilet trajectory.
We witnessed a prolonged battle over a gull chick, which was grabbed by a pair of skuas when it wandered too far from the rest of the flock.  However, the adult gulls produced a sustained mobbing of the skuas, which eventually led to the chick escaping to the bosom of its family.
Furry Skua, and penguin, chicks.
All in all, it was a amazing insight into the natural world.  How male mammals are very aggressive in defending their territory; how predators need to kill to feed their chicks; and how safety in numbers is often the only strategy for young birds to survive to adulthood.
And all this without seeing any orcas.  These efficient hunters had apparently been frequent visitors earlier in the season when the elephant seal pups made their first forays into the sea.  Dozens had been killed, and several camera crews had visited to capture the dramatic scenes.  Expect another BBC Wildlife programme to be released soon!

Gentoo penguins auditioning for "The Sound of Music"!
(Thanks, Bx!)

Meanwhile, back in Stanley, we said sad farewells to Bx, whom we hoped had had her curiosity about the Falklands satisfied.   Normal activities resumed.   Some cruise ships appeared on the horizon and one or two actually managed to land passengers, despite the wind.  I was a busy Penguin Warden again, answering questions like -  Why aren't these penguins as big as the ones on TV?  What do you feed them?  When do they dance...?   Sometimes the weather was unfriendly, but on one morning I saw dolphins 3 times, which makes up for the hail and horizontal rain.
Star Princess about to disgorge 2,500 passengers. About the same  number  as live in the Falklands. 
My wife works in the tax industry and a few of her ex-colleagues in the UK  have complained that I never mention tax on here........

Just to say we bumped into a couple from the Isle of Man on SeaLion Island, and at one point it seemed no-one cared about penguins or seals, as the conversation at the bar revolved around the riveting topic of the tax regimes of the Falklands, the Isle of Man and the UK.  Still, it helped me catch up on my sleep!

And then, in Stanley, we were explaining to a friendly local who was having slight difficulty in hearing the conversation in a busy pub, that both my wife and Bx worked in Tax.  Noticing that he hadn't quite heard, I said loudly that they both liked "TAX".  Frowning, he replied, "Tacks? Oh, we had a shipwreck about 30 years ago, and all that could be salvaged was the cargo of tacks.  We had enough tacks to last us years!  Would you like some?"....
Magellanic penguin chick
So, no more tax references here!  Soon, the media representatives will be descending upon us, as the Referendum (on whether Falklanders wish to remain an UK Overseas Territory) looms.  More on that later.


Friday, 8 February 2013

"The Clyde, the Clyde, the wonderful Clyde......"

London buses, eh?  You don't see one for ages then 3 turn up at once.  Same with blog entries, and Unusual ships in Stanley Harbour.....[I'm living in the Falklands for a couple of years.  This is just some observations on living here.]
Penguins in Gypsy Cove

As well as cruise ships like Veendam and Seabourn Sojourn (not forgetting the unfortunate Star Princess, which found the gales too strong to allow passengers ashore), there's been a couple of Royal Navy warships visiting and allowing the public on board.
The bridge, bristling with modern equipment
I mentioned the destroyer, HMS Edinburgh, recently, but today saw HMS Clyde invite locals onboard, to see who and what is behind the naval patrols around the Falklands.
 The ship is 25 years younger than Edinburgh, and it shows in the sophisticated controls on the bridge.  I'm not a military expert, but I'm fairly sure that Edinburgh would win in a fight between the two, but Clyde is probably a bit more economical to have on permanent patrol in the South Atlantic.  Certainly, it is reassuring for Falklanders to have this level of protection around their islands, (especially in light of recent Argentine announcements).
And, like Edinburgh, it reminded me of where I was born - in sight of the famous Firth of Clyde, immortalised in McGonagall poetry - (or it may have been Spike Milligan....)

"The Clyde, the Clyde, the wonderful Clyde,
It's filled with water from side to side!"

Not to be confused with McGonagall's famous ode, "The Tay Bridge Disaster".  He is often thought to be the worst poet in the world, but I'm not sure if he wrote the following description of the biggest river in Scotland -

"The Tay, the Tay, the silvery Tay,
It flows the same way every day!"

For more information on Scotland's other famous bard -
State cabins, Erica.
After those two mighty  fighting ships, we also welcomed the giant and sleek sloop "Erica XII".  It is registered in Hamilton, and I presume it's the one in Bermuda, and not the town in central Scotland!
Erica moored near the public jetty
 Its 150-foot (52m.) length has room for 10 passengers in comfort and 7 crew.  The top of its mast seems as high as the hill on which Stanley sits!

For more details on her and how to charter it, please go here >
Gypsy Cove - good place for penguins and dolphins

 Meanwhile, for those cruise ship passengers who did make it ashore this week, there were a few penguins hanging around to welcome them.  Most of the chicks in Gypsy Cove (where I occasionally work) are now out of their nests and gathering on the beach, waiting not only for their daily feed, but for their full adult plumage to grow.
Storms early in the week prevented 2,500 passenger getting ashore.
Seabourn Sojourn and Princendam in calm waters
 It was interesting chatting to some of the visitors, many of who were Canadian.  Sheila, originally from Rutherglen in Scotland, now lives near Vancouver, but spotted my Scottish accent, and wanted to know if I could buy Ayrshire bacon in Stanley.  (It's a Scottish delicacy, for those who haven't tried it).  I reassured her that I could also lay my hands on square sausages and black pudding, should I long for the tastes of my homeland (and if I was worried my cholesterol was too low!).
Feeding time
However, most visitors tend to ask more penguin-centric questions:

"Do you feed them krill?"
"Are these King penguins?"
"Do you eat them?"

The answer is "No", to all.
Meanwhile, a small crime wave is erupting in Stanley with several speeding drivers being processed by the courts.  One driver admitted he'd overtaken a car on the bypass (speed limit 40mph) at 60 miles per hour.  But his subsequent speeding through the town at 40mph (limit 25mph), was because he thought that car was chasing him.  In a way he was right - he'd overtaken the Chief Constable!   I'm really not sure why anyone would need to speed as the town is only 2 miles from end to end.

There might be a delay until the next blog as we are hosting a dear friend who has made it all the way from the UK via Chile.  So, the Penguin Warden uniform goes in the cupboard for a while, and I'm doing private tours....


Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Seeing Kidney, with a film crew

[Continuing an occasional look at living in the Falkland Islands.....]   Last week I was asked to show a film crew around the uninhabited Kidney Island.  Well, "uninhabited" by people, but it has scores of sealions, hundreds of penguins, and thousands of Sooty Shearwaters!  (See blog entries for last December and February for more on Kidney Island).

"Are you free tomorrow to show a film crew round Kidney Island?"  Without checking whether the caller meant "free" as in "available" or "free" as in "at no cost", I said I was!   I just assumed my embryonic role as a Tour Guide had attracted positive attention and my services were demanded by visiting film-makers.  Or, it may have been that every other guide was already booked......
Sweet nothings being whispered in the ear....?
The visitors were making a film about the diversity of the flora and fauna in the UK's Overseas Territories, of which the Falklands was one of 14.

Led by Stewart McPherson, the team were keen to capture on film (or its digital equivalent) unique habitats and wildlife.  They had been sponsored to increase the knowledge of the mostly-remote Overseas Territories.  They had already recorded the blue iguana on the Cayman Islands, and filmed green turtles on Ascension Island.  Now they wanted to see the unique sights of the Falklands......
Sealion sentinel on the beach
I didn't realise it at the time, but Stewart had gained fame by discovering a carnivorous plant in the Phillipines, the Nepenthes Attenboroughii, and naming it after a well-known naturalist and broadcaster! (Amazing what Google can tell you!).

For more background on Stewart, try his company's website >

Simon, the cameramen, also has an interesting site, which should show where they are travelling to >
The difference in size between male and female is quite pronounced.
 So, early on Friday morning, we (along with some ornithologists) set off on a lovely launch to Kidney Island, in the next bay from Stanley.  I had been several times, most recently in November with some friends.  The difference this time was that the tall tussoc grass which covers the island, had grown from the usual head height, and was trickier than usual to negotiate, after weeks of rain.  Bogs abounded.
The hut gives an idea as to the height of the grass.
The story of Tussoc Grass, take 5....
 Added to the impenetrability of the tussoc grass, was the hidden danger of sleeping sealions in the foliage.  I did come across a couple of them in my tour of the island, and it is quite a fright to be face to face with a grumpy ton of blubber and fur.  Not to mention the sharp teeth at one end.
Ornithologists trying to see the birdlife.
From zero visibility to 10-mile views....
The endemic Cobb's wren, sheltering from the breeze
Upland Geese family
 At a sheltered cove, we found about 20 sealions relaxing in family groups.  They didn't seem to mind us watching them from about 70 yards away.
Sealion with pup
Males eyeing each other up
Further along the coast, we found the Rockhopper penguin colony, which also has a large number of rock shags within it.  The chicks are almost fully grown now, but need to develop the waterproof feathers before setting off to sea for the first time.
Nest with a view.
Mucky young penguin learning how to stand with its back to the wind.
Falklands Thrush foraging in the kelp
 Hopefully, the scientists and cameraman got the shots they wanted.  As the sun went down, we all gathered near the beach to wait for the spectacle of around 50,000 pairs of Sooty Shearwaters returning to their nests.
A double rainbow in the bay.
 The nests are burrows under the tussoc grass clumps, and during the day, seemed empty.  But as darkness fell, and the birds landed heavily on the clumps of grass, we could hear the calling between parents and chicks.
Rockhopper lookout.
 With the sky darkening, thousand of birds arrived overhead to whirl round above our heads countless times, before plunging into a grass clump.
50,000 pairs of Sooty Shearwaters returning at dusk.
With the footage safely captured, we headed back to the lights of Stanley.  Arriving at the jetty, the Globe Tavern seemed to be lively (possibly due to the presence of HMS Edinburgh in the harbour), and a million miles from the wildlife spectacles we had just witnessed.

I will try to keep in touch with the team to see the film when it is finalised.