Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Saunders Island revisited!

[This is an intermittent archive of my life, with my wife, on the Falkland Islands, roughly 400 miles east of Argentina, in the South Atlantic].

There's a saying about London buses, that you might wait for one for ages, then three turn up at once.....  Well, I have lived in the Falklands for 4 years now, and until this month (January 2016), had not been on Saunders Island - one of the premier wildlife locations here.  Then, I visited it twice in one week!
One of several empty beaches
As I mentioned in the "Antarctic Adventures" post, the finale to an amazing trip to Antarctica was enjoying the spectacular scenery and wildlife on Saunders Island - long, sandy beaches and thousands of penguins and albatrosses.
Growing albatross chick
By a coincidence, my wife had booked, weeks previously, a weekend trip to Saunders for the following week.  We were saying farewell to some friends who were returning to the UK, and they, too, had not been to Saunders, either.
Port Egmont. Union flag raised in 1765.  Taken down again in ....1770.
 As well as the wildlife, Saunders Island is famous in these parts as the place where the British flag was first raised, in 1765. Unfortunately, a year earlier, the French had raised their flag on a nearby island....  Neither party knew of the other's existence for about another year.  After a few years, Britain withdrew from the islands, but returned in 1833, when the French and Spanish had also abandoned the region.  The garrison ruins are still clearly visible.
Watching the albatrosses at the Rookery
 We had enjoyed the wildlife so much the previous week, that we couldn't wait to see more.  We had been at the Neck when we had landed from the Akademik Vavilov, our ship.   This time, we got a lift to another part of the island, the Rookery, which had large Black-Browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguin colonies.

As there were only about two other people in the vicinity, we had the birds almost to ourselves.  And we could sit and watch the parent and chick interactions for hours, without disturbing them.

Once the chicks leave the nest, they spend about 4 years circling the globe, living on the wing. They then return to the Falklands to breed.
Busy parents
 The birds are ungainly on the ground, but the almost-constant wind around the Falklands enables them to effortlessly soar and glide when they take off.
Note the feet!
 Whilst feeding their chicks, these beautiful birds might travel to waters around Tierra del Fuego to feed.  Around 1200 miles there and back in a couple of days.  We may well have seen some of these birds during our voyage from Antarctica, earlier in the month.
Rockhoppers with chick.
 Close by was a large colony of Rockhopper penguins, whose chicks were now old enough to be left in creches while the adults went out to sea to fish each day.
Rock shag and large chick
Another empty beach, or it might be the same one.
 After we had had our fill of flying and flightless wildlife, we set off back to the settlement along the Land Rover track.  I'm guessing it was about 6 miles.
Different empty beach.  Keppel Island across the water.
 We saw no-one else for 3 hours.  Blue skies, warm breezes... Enjoyed a picnic on the beach.  It's not always like this!
Good track
 The path gradually climbed up to a saddle, just below the summit of Mt Egmont, at about 1,500 feet, so we took a slight detour to the top and drank in the views.
Mt Egmont summit
 The views were extensive - the settlement and airstrip below us; West Falklands, to the south;   Keppel and Pebble Islands to the east, and the extent of Saunders stretching to the Neck, to the west.
Settlement below Mt Egmont
Back in the settlement, which is basically a farm with about 20 buildings, we could enjoy a veritable multitude of domesticated animals - pigs, ducks, geese, horses, lambs, cows, chickens - not to mention the wild Striated Caracaras, Upland Geese, Magellanic Oystercatchers, Kelp Geese, and so on.
Farm guard
The shearing gang were about to arrive to separate the 3,000+ sheep from their wool.  It was a busy time of year, with dozens of visitors coming and going every week, plus cruise ships calling in.
Saunders airport
All too soon, our weekend break was finishing.  Our FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service) flight arrived and we clambered aboard.  
Buzzing the ferry on its way to the West.
Ten minutes later, we dropped off a couple of passengers at Pebble Island, then headed back across Falkland Sound to East Falkland and Stanley.
Central Stanley 
Flying low over Stanley harbour, we could easily make out specific buildings in the town.    The blue roof covers the Town Hall, court and Post Office.   To the left, the bank.  To the right, Penguin News office, and Historic Dockyard Museum.
Had it been worth going back so soon?  Well, I would say so.  The bird colonies had been different, and we had been almost entirely alone for the day.  And instead of squeezing into a zodiac and zipping through the waves to our ship, followed by dinner with the Captain,  we had a convivial dinner, with wine,  listening to friends recounting their bumpy rides to and from the Neck and their close encounters with King penguins.

Same island, different experiences....    I'd go again!

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