Saturday, 27 September 2014

Elephants and Yoga - but it's not India!

[This is an occasional diary of life in the Falkland Islands for a couple of expats from the UK.  Spring is rapidly approaching and we hoped to see some 4-tonne animals mating while we relaxed on a Yoga weekend on Sea Lion Island......]

Dawn broke over the remote Sea Lion Island: 350 miles east from South America, and 600 miles north of Antarctica.  Carol, the new manager of the Lodge, was also a Yoga teacher and had offered a novel weekend break, combining exercise, meditation and wildlife! The chatter of hundreds of penguins could be heard just outside the windows, as sleepy visitors took position on their mats.
Penguins mass outside Sea Lion Lodge
A curious, and fearless,  resident, a Striated Caracara, peered through the window at the lithe bodies.  Perhaps a new food source for it?  Carol,encouraged the group to concentrate on breathing and we followed, as best we could, her supple movements and increasingly difficult Yoga positions.
Early-morning sun streams into the yoga studio
Being the least experienced of the group, I quickly found the Downward-Facing Dog position a stretch too far, and settled for the Child Pose, which entailed me resting my forehead on the mat, listening to my laboured breathing and the chatter of penguins 20 metres away.
Striated Caracara keeps a beady eye on visitors
Where else in the world can you experience such a dawn chorus?  But there is only so much Yoga one can do in a day, and with hours between the excellent meals, there was time to explore and discover who else had returned to the island this Spring.......
Strolling past the resident Gentoo penguins, and the returning Magellanic penguins (who were finding their burrows still flooded from the recent rains), we reached the mile-long beach where giants collide!
How the elephant seal got his name!
The beach is mostly sand, but contains enough rocks to make you think twice before stepping on what looks like a boulder.  These Leviathians may not move much on land, but you don't really want to get too close to them!
The teeth may not be big, but they have 3 tonnes behind them!
Southern Elephant Seals come ashore on Sea Lion to breed and calve.  After rutting and mating, they moult and return to sea.  But while they are ashore, they cannot eat, so must live off their massive reserves.
He won't eat again for 6 months, so needs the weight.
 Bull seals can weigh over 4,000Kgs, and be over 6 metres in length!  They compete with other bulls to mate with females, and already some bulls have recruited harems around their area of the beach.
Six-month beach vacation... but no food.
 The females can grow to 900Kgs and this is the biggest difference between males and females in any animal species.  In the photo below, a tussac bird is trying to eke out some morsel from between an old bulls teeth.....
Tussac bird cleaning a seal's mouth
Quite a lot is known about the Sea Lion seals, as they are the subject of a long-term study by Italian scientists.  More information can be found here >>>>
Scientists monitoring seals. Pup suckling in centre
Scientists  tag the seals soon after birth, and record their return visits.  They study the complex behaviour between adults of the same and opposite sex.  I can only imagine they are very dedicated, as they sit on that beach all day for weeks at a time, far from the warmth of the Mediterranean.
Probably the richest milk in the world. Snowy Sheathbill waiting for scraps.
The pups weigh about 40Kgs at birth , and rapidly put on weight in the 3 weeks they suckle their mother's milk, which is thought to be about the richest in the world. After about a month, the mother returns to the sea, having mated, and leaves the pup to fend for itself.
Recently-born pup with mother
 Unfortunately for the pups, and over 600 were born on Sea Lion last year, their numbers and naivety attract attention from patrolling Orcas, and at the peak of the season in November, several attacks per day on pups can be witnessed from the beach.

Female elephant seal. A third the size of bulls.
"Falkland Islands - where the wildlife comes to you!".   This is the slogan of the Falkland Islands Tourist Board.  This is true of some species, like curious penguin.  But others simply do not fear Man, and don't run when you approach.  This can lead to incredibly-close encounters......
Snipe in camouflaged habitat
I nearly stepped on this snipe, and did brush it with my walking pole, causing it to fly up a few feet, then settle back down.  It stayed about 8 feet from me for about 10 minutes, while I clicked away with the camera.
A few minutes later, we came across two other snipe poking their long bills into the ground, looking for insects.
We sat down to watch them and again we could be about 6 feet (2 metres) from them without them being disturbed.
All too soon,  the yoga and wildlife had to be left behind.  Our yoga mats and bags were put in the Landrover, which drove the 100 metres to the airstrip....
Departure lounge, Sea Lion island
On the return flight, the plane stayed low into the strong headwind.  Over Stanley, we caught a view of the new Temporary Dock Facility, which had been towed all the way from Louisiana for the burgeoning oil industry.  It is near the Interim dock facility which has served the Falklands well for over 25 years!
Temporary Dock Facility, centre, is still to be connected to land....
It was my fourth visit to Sea Lion island, but it was probably one of the most interesting despite the lack of Rockhopper penguins (due to return in 2 weeks).  Certainly, it's one of the excellent wildlife sites, not only in the Falklands, but anywhere.   Now I just need to keep doing the Yoga exercises to stave off the creaking joints.

More soon,


Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Local activities

Back in the Falkland Islands after our recent travels to the UK and South America, my wife and I are settling into the more mundane, but still enjoyable, aspects of life here.

Ramblers / rock climbers. Mts William and Tumbledown in the distance.
September has seen a lot of rain - the most in the month for 25 years - so it was uplifting to be able to walk in the sunshine on Sunday.  The local Ramblers group set off from Stanley about 9.30, and reached the parking spot about 10 minutes later!
Lunch on the beach
Although very close to Stanley, this is relatively quiet area, due, possibly, to presence of minefields.  These lethal legacies of the 1982 war with Argentina are gradually being removed.  The government has just announce a new £2,000,000 programme, funded by the UK Foreign Office, which should remove another 4 minefields, and open up more land for more productive use.  In any case, we had a very enjoyable ramble, and watched dolphins just a few yards from the beach.
Intricate craftwork
For those who prefer indoor activities, there is a thriving and talented group of people who continue traditional crafts such as, knitting, spinning, weaving, felting, quilting, sewing, embroidery, etc, etc.  The annual Craft Fair exhibiting their creations was held in the Community School at the weekend.  Photos cannot do justice to the skill and patience involved in producing these practical works of art.
Felt penguins
As well as woollen products, there are categories for painting, photography (believe me, the standard is high!), miniature models, and even works made from from sea-shells or driftwood.  All very impressive, and a good way to keep busy when the Winter nights are long and there's no cinema!

We now await the Spring when lambing will begin, and thousands of wild birds and mammals return from the sea to breed on the islands.

I hear the first Elephant Seal pup of the year has been born on Sealion Island.  I'm going there at the weekend and will report back soon.


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Valparaiso & Vineyards

Hello again, and apologies for the lengthy Summer break, or  (if you live in the Falkland Islands, as I do) Winter break.    A few issues have conspired against me writing recently - more work as a driving instructor; exceeding our August "megabyte" limit for access to the Internet; and trying to sort the many photographs taken on our recent trip to the UK and South America.
Valparaiso graffiti
To start at the end, we finished up in Valparaiso, a historic port about 90 minutes drive from Chile's capital, Santiago.  Valpo, as it is known to its friends, is very different from the modern, high-rise sprawl that is Santiago.  It sits on ten hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Cable-car with Chilean flag
The hills are very steep and many little cable-cars were built about 150 years ago to make life easier for the residents.  A few funiculars are still operating today and are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Street graffiti
Another noticeable feature of the city is the graffiti - it is everywhere, and artistic!
Apparently, it is also illegal, unless the artist obtains the house-owner's permission. So, many owners ask for graffiti artists to "paint the house".
Painted kennel
Valparaiso is a bit like San Francisco - built on steep hills, with funiculars running up and down them. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and is also prone to earthquakes and fires!  However, it grew quickly soon after Chile became a nation, as more and more ships came round Cape Horn, on their way to the California Gold Rush.
The port and docks
Most of its port business and wealth disappeared in 1914, though, when the Panama canal opened, which saved sailors the long, dangerous journey through the Drake Passage!  The lack of money in the city has had the effect of preserving the glorious, but faded, old buildings, rather than replacing them in the name of progress.  About 10 years ago UNESCO declared the old  centre of the port as a World Heritage Site.
Valpo at night.  Hotels on hills have good views....
The city still has trolleybuses, which reminded me of the Transport Museum in Glasgow, which I visited a few months ago.  An open-air museum here!
There is also a connection between Chile and the village of Dundonald, Scotland, where I was holed up in April and May this year, waiting for eye operations.  Imagine my surprise when wandering round in the Chilean Naval Museum to see a picture of Dundonald Castle.  It seems that the Chilean Navy had been founded by Lord Cochrane of  Dundonald in the early 1800s! He even helped liberate Peru!,_10th_Earl_of_Dundonald

What is it?
It is quite an interesting museum and I managed to get into one of its latest exhibits, above.  Can you guess what it is?  It was used at a very famous event a few years ago......It was on the news a lot....!

Answer next time.

On the way to the airport in Santiago, we had to travel through the Casablanca Valley which is full of vineyards, so we called in at a couple.....(we had a driver/guide).
Alpacas keep the weeds down on an organic vineyard
 One vineyard used alpacas to keep the weeds under control, and the wool iss given to the workforce to supplement their income.
Cheese and wine
 The Casablanca valley has a cool climate and virtually no rain, but sea fogs roll in from the coast to moisten the vines.  Crisp Sauvignon Blancs are produced here as well as delicious Pinot Noirs.  A grape variety, Carmenere, is rarely found outside Chile, but produces lovely red wine.

I would encourage you to try some of the produce of Chile.  The Pacific Ocean on the west; the Andes in the East; the Atacama Desert in the North, and Antarctica to the south.  Chile is cut off from the rest of the world, and its isolation helped restock the world's vineyards when the Phylloxera aphids destroyed most of Europe's vines in the 19th century.