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,


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