Thursday, 25 December 2014

Santa in Stanley

[An occasional look at life in the Falkland Islands, which are about the same distance from the Equator as London is........]

Christmas Day.  Dawn is around 4.30.  Up early to Skype the rellies.
Gypsy Cove, with penguins
 Put the reindeer in the oven and head to Surf Bay, to have a dip in the South Atlantic with some friends....
"Come on in, the water's lovely!"
 Quite a mild day today, around 15C, and a gentle breeze.  Two years ago it was snowing on Christmas Day!
Luckily, the crowds stay away today
A few days ago, saw a couple of medium-sized cruise ships berth at FIPASS (Falklands Interim Port and Storage System). Interim, in that it was designed to last 5 years, but has been there 25!
Le Boreal and Fram at FIPASS
 The Fram had about 200 passengers and Le Boreal about 500.  I was guiding a group from the Fram around the coast to Gypsy Cove to see penguins, shipwrecks, Steamer ducks, Upland Geese, Blackish Oystercatchers and so on. Lots of chicks, goslings and ducklings to be seen, and several endemic Falkland flowers as well
Fram squeezing through the Narrows
 I also had the great pleasure of bumping into a guide, Rob Caskie,  from Le Boreal, whom we had last seen at Rorke's Drift in South Africa 8 years ago!  We later had a chat over a coffee.  He, too, is keeping a blog of his adventures.
Le Boreal
 Rob's a historian and superb story-teller, and is now telling the tales of Antarctic explorers to cruise passengers heading there.  Back in South Africa, his stories of the Anglo-Zulu wars are captivating. He tours the UK in May, if you want to hear him.  >>>>

No job for reindeer...
Meanwhile, back in Stanley, an urgent request was received from a couple of German cruise ships in the harbour.  They had failed to collect the promised Christmas trees from a neighbouring country, and it wouldn't be Christmas for the mainly German passengers without one.  Could the Falklands help??
Santa delivers!
Despite the almost-total lack of trees on the islands, a local market garden came up with the trees and made a special delivery them by zodiac!

Hope you have a Peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Sunday, 21 December 2014

1914 Remembered - a violent year in the Falklands.

[A pictorial diary of life in the Falklands for me and my wife.  Here for a few years].

The Falkland Island are, and were, a remote archipelago, and prior to the Panama Canal opening in 1913, Port Stanley was occasionally a safe harbour for ships damaged or blown off course after rounding Cape Horn.  Very much a quiet backwater......

However, on December 8th, 1914, events near Stanley, the capital, brought the Falkland Islands to the notice of the world for the first time.
Royal Marines Band
A full-blown naval battle took place within sight of land, resulting in over two thousand deaths, and the crushing defeat of the German fleet in the south Atlantic.
But, just a few weeks earlier, it was the Royal Navy that had suffered horrendous losses in the Battle of Coronel, just off the Chilean coast.  1,600 sailors were killed as British ships were sunk by the stronger German fleet.
Royal Navy
It looked certain that the German fleet, under vice-Admiral Graf von Spee, would then easily capture the Falklands, obtaining vital coal supplies, and destroying the powerful radio station.
Royal British Legion and other civilian groups.
But, reinforcements, under Admiral Sturdee, had rushed to Port Stanley from the north and arrived on December 7th, the day before the German fleet, to surprise the Germans, and achieve a stunning victory.  How different might things have been if the Royal Navy had arrived a day later.....
Memorial wall with plaques about to be unveiled.

"Adversaries in War; Companions in Death"
The sea battles had repercussions, not only for the families of those involved, but also for historic figures such as Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty, at the time), and also for the long-term strategic importance to Great Britain of the Falkland Islands.
Flotilla of small boats
With my tour guide hat on, I often get asked by visitors, "Why?" Why is this spot on the map British?   "What earthly interest did Great Britain have in a wind-swept archipelago, miles from anywhere and in some of the roughest seas in the world?"
Well, that naval encounter in 1914 brought home to the world how important it was to have a staging post and re-fuelling base, when you are thousands of miles from home.
The Governor inspects the parade
"The Sun Never Set" on the British Empire at that time, and the empire relied on trade, which relied on ships, which relied on coal, and later, oil, to keep their engines running.

In an unstable world, where people were throwing off colonial rule, the Falklands became an indispensable and reliable haven for ships going round Cape Horn to California and Australia, and to explore  "Terra Incognita" - Antarctica.
Marine Band. Battle Monument
So, despite their remoteness, the Falklands had fame thrust upon themselves on the 8th December 1914.  And to commemorate the centenary, a group of locals decided it would be appropriate to invite descendants of the Admirals in those battles to Stanley.

So, the descendants of Admirals Craddock (defeated at Coronel), Sturdee (victorious at the Falklands) and Graf von Spee (victor at Coronel and defeated at the Falklands) were invited to participate in events to mark the sacrifice made by both navies.
Combined parade march past
December 8th is now a public holiday in the Falklands, and a large crowd turned out on a bright and breezy day to see units from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Falkland Islands Defence Force march to the Battle Monument, and return to take the salute from the Governor and VIPs.
A new memorial for both sides of the conflict was unveiled, and a flotilla of small ships sailed down the harbour in the brisk south-westerly.
The Marines Band, as they did all week, marched and played stirring music.....
"Hearts of Oak".  "The Great Escape" - yes!  Even some Bond themes!
They are all superb musicians, each playing a minimum of two instruments.
Falkland Islands Defence Force.

Taking the salute at Government House.
Flotilla of launches.
Malvina House Hotel flagpoles.
Later in the day, the visiting Royal Marine Band Beat the Retreat in the street, in front of the Malvina House Hotel, where a gala dinner was taking place.  A stirring performance on a cool evening.

Beating the Retreat

At the end of the week of commemorations, another memorial was unveiled, this time by local descendants of 8 members of the Falkland Islands Volunteer Force who died in a tragic accident on December 1st 1914.
Cairn, with the Canache in backround
The men had been hurriedly working on lookout posts, before the expected German fleet appeared in Stanley harbour.  To save time, rather than taking a longer land route, they took a short boat trip across the Canache - a sheltered inlet of the harbour.

While crossing a narrow strip of water, their punt capsized, and, fully-laden with coats and packs, 8 of them drowned a few yards from shore.

The impact of this tragedy on such a small community, on top of the news of the imminent arrival of an invading German fleet, is hard to imagine.

So, it was an emotional week for many.  But the visitors apparently felt that it was such a fitting  gesture by the Falklanders - to bring together the families of the commanders of opposing fleets.

The guests had enjoyed a full programme for their week. When not viewing the famous wildlife or visiting a sheep farm, they were being entertained by the local Amateur Dramatic society, in the shape of a Edwardian Music Hall concert, with the addition of sketches from the BBC Blackadder WW1 series!   A great time was had by all, including the audience!

More details of the Battle of the Falklands can be found here >>>>>

Have a peaceful Christmas


Saturday, 13 December 2014

Bleaker Island revisited - Birds and Beaches.

[Continuing the irregular updates on life in the South Atlantic.  8,000 miles from the UK, 400 miles from Argentina, the Falkland Islands are our home from home.  While we work during the week, we try to explore the other 778 islands at the weekend.......]

A few weeks ago, we revisited Bleaker Island after our first trip there, about 30 months.
ago.  It's a long, narrow island, about 15 miles by 1 mile, with a small settlement of about 4 houses in the middle.
Bleaker air terminal
As usual, the normal way to arrive is by small Britten-Norman Islander planes run by the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS).

An extra passenger on our plane....
We were met by the owner, Mike, who lives on the island, and one of the couple who manage the farm and visitor properties.  Our bags went with the manager directly to the settlement about 2 miles from the airstrip, while we had the circuitous familiarisation tour from Mike.
Cassard House sun lounge
We had stayed in the main house, Cassard, soon after it had opened 3 years ago, and it was still as full of light and comfort as we remembered.  And, once again, we had managed to pick a time when we had the 4-bedroomed place to ourselves.
Cassard House living room
After settling in, we slapped on the sun cream and headed out to see what we could see.....
Settlement house
The main difference from the previous visit was in the season - Spring instead of late Summer/Autumn.  Birds, especially penguins, were sitting on eggs.  This made them much less mobile and hence photogenic.
Rockhopper incubating egg
 They are also very wary of losing their eggs to predators, of which there are many.  The common (to these parts. They are rare everywhere else.) Striated Caracara is mainly seen hanging around colonies, waiting for a moment of opportunity to steal a meal.
Watchful penguins being watched by a Straited Caracara
These Caracaras tend to attack their prey by running, and have been very successful on islands where cats have not been introduced, such as Bleaker.
Striated Caracara

"This way, chaps!"
Other predators include Skuas, and the ubiquitous Turkey Vulture.  So these penguins have a hard life.  Added to that, their colonies tend to be at the top of sheer cliffs, which they have to negotiate hundreds of times during the breeding season.
Turkey vulture
Once they have clambered down the slope to the sea, they then run the guantlet of seals and sea lions, who also use the island for breeding
Southern sea lion
We could sit and watch these cute penguins for hours, and frequently did!

They are inquisitive
Bleaker also has colonies of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins.  The latter live in burrows near a sandy beach, whereas the Gentoo are usually found inland.  However, around feeding time, they return from their fishing trips and congregate on the beach before heading en masse to find their chicks.
Walking among the Gentoo penguins
Watching the crowds reminded me of my time working in central London, when office workers would gather, at the end of the day,  at the major train stations, perhaps meeting friends for a pint, before heading home to the family!

By the way, this beach has been deemed to be the 9th best beach in the world by a travel writer, Lee Abbamonte, and who are we to argue?  I'm guessing it was also the quietest and coldest on his list, see below!
Kelp Geese, male white
Birds abound on Bleaker.......
Patagonian crested ducks
Ruddy-headed goose and goslings
Two-banded plover
Crested Caracara, a long way away...
And the birds we saw, were generally very tame, the exception being the Crested Caracara, a striking South American raptor.
Rock cormorant colony
We noticed other differences in the time of year.  The Skuas were here, but had no chicks yet, so were not as aggressive as we remembered.
Skua - pirating gentoo eggs.
 They were feasting on penguin eggs.  In a few months, they would be feeding their young on the abundant penguin chicks!
Gentoo on egg
However, the resident striated Caracaras were an aerial threat.
Agressive Striated Caracara
The next day, we borrowed a car to drive to some of the remoter parts.  Unlike any other car I had hired in the past, there was no forms to fill in;  no credit card to be checked;  no examination of the bodywork for dents and scratches; no queue at the depot; no worry about re-filling with fuel.....

"Would you like to take the car tomorrow?  We'll add £xx to your bill."    Simples!
Magellanic penguin snuggling up to Flightless Steamer Duck!
Most of the island is rough pasture for sheep and beef cattle, but stock numbers are low, to avoid over-grazing and erosion, which has blighted some islands.
So, off we went to explore, and see what we could see.  At the southern end of the island, where we could look across a narrow strait to the mainland, we found a rather friendly Flightless Steamer Duck and a Magellanic Penguin, keeping out of the wind.  Could there be a new species on the way?
Black-necked Swan
We could drive almost anywhere on the farm tracks, stopping for a walk or picnic or to watch a pond for exotic birdlife..  Very relaxing.
A very shy bird is the black-necked swan.  We saw about 8 of them, but almost immediately they would paddle across to the far side of a large pond.
Magellanic Snipe, from the car!
Less shy was a magellanic snipe.  This photo, above, was taken from a few feet away, while we were sitting in the car!

We saw so many more birds that we took photos of.  But we were only there to soak up the atmosphere and relax, which we did, thanks to Elaine, our hostess, having dinner ready for us when we arrived from our wanderings.

Bleaker - a beautiful island.  A really civilised retreat!.