Sunday, 18 September 2016

Sea Lion; See Elephant Seals....

[This is an occasional look at life on the Falkland Islands from the point of view of British expats.  One of the reasons my wife and I wanted to live here was the incredible wildlife, so last week, we had a short trip to one of the "jewels in the crown" of outlying islands where the wildlife just gets on with life, and ignores humans........]

By the way, I should say I am incredibly flattered that many people around the world look at this blog. It was only started as a means to let friends back in the UK know what we were up to in the South Atlantic, but I now see from recent statistics that I have readers all over the place! Below is a list of the Top Ten countries by views in the last week -

United Kingdom
Ireland ("Hello, Ireland!" Where have you been?)
United States
Falkland Islands

If I look at the views per month, St Helena and Cayman Islands, two remote British Overseas Territories, also feature.  So, "Hello" to you guys, too, and anyone else that reads this.

Enough waffle.  We had booked our flight on FIGAS, a government air taxi service. Our checkin was at 11am, so in the morning we packed and left the house about 10:50!  We and our bags were weighed, and we took off about 11:30, after waiting on the apron while two RAF Typhoon jets completed their Saturday morning exercises above the runway!
Typhoons at 11 o'clock
Looking west over Stanley Harbour.
Within 5 minutes walk of our Lodge
After about 45 minutes in the air, we landed at Sea Lion Island, and walked the 50 metres to the Lodge. The manager welcomed us, and told us we were the only guests that weekend! Pausing only to have a light lunch, we were soon back on the beach, and coming face-to-face with the main attraction - Southern Elephant Seals. 3 tonnes of blubber and muscle, who annually arrive here to fight other males, and breed.
This guy wobbled back into the sea when he saw us, and we thought we had frightened him.....
Far from it. He followed us for about a mile, along the whole length of the beach, swimming parallel to us just a few yards offshore.
We passed huge colonies of Gentoo penguins that are resident all year round, and then headed through the sand dunes to see who else had arrived.
Female seal making use of the shelter

The seals are monitored by a team of Italian scientists, who spend six months of the year on the Island counting, weighing and observing the seals.  More information and fantastic photos can be found at their Facebook page -

We soon came across some big boys dozing in the dunes.

And the scientists were trying to take tissue samples or, if they recognised the seal, spraying their "name" on them, to make them easy to identify as they roam the beaches in coming weeks.
Scientists on a log watching a seal shelter...
Nice teeth

There were also some vantage points above the beach if you wanted to get close.  I relied on a powerful zoom lens....
Female emerging from the sea, and me avoiding getting between the male and female.....
The male showing an interest in the new female....
How would you like to wake up next to this?
We only saw a couple of females, but have since heard that one has given birth to the first pup. Soon hundreds will be born there. The females will then mate with a dominant bull, and return to sea, leaving the pup on its own, living off its puppy fat, built up from the richest milk in the world.

But Sea Lion Island has so much more. In the 1850s, when fur seals were almost extinct due to the actions of the sealers, penguins became a target for their oil. This contraption above is the remains of where penguins were boiled down for their oil - 1 pint per penguin. Millions were killed in a few decades.
Flying Falklands Steamer Duck
Flightless Falklands Steamer Duck
But the birdlife has recovered and is spectacular, especially in Spring. Winter is still clinging on here, so we saw no Rockhopper penguins, or Skuas, but the resident birds were a delight.
Striated Caracara
Sealions on Sealion Island
Picnic, with Lodge in distance, and caracaras near. Sealions below.
We found a sheltered spot  for a picnic lunch overlooking a beach which sealions like.  Sure enough, a couple of massive bulls were dozing and grooming about 10 metres below us

But while we enjoyed the show, the fearless Caracaras came ever closer, looking for food or anything they could steal.
Our Nordic Walking poles saved us a few times, as the birds tried to work our how to grapple with this new prey species they had found - us!
Circling the prey - us!

They attack prey - usually penguin chicks - by running at them, and they tried the same tactics on us!

Endemic Cobb's Wren
While we were keeping an eye on the Caracaras (also called "Jonny Rook" on the islands), a tiny Cobbs Wren popped up from underneath a rock. These birds are unique to the Falklands and only found where there are no cats, rats or mice.
Snowy Sheathbill
There were plenty of other birds, too. Eventually we found some early-returning Magellanic penguins, making their burrow neat before the arrival of their mate from her winter holidays in Brazil!

About to give birth to a 30kg pup.....
I have just seen on the Elephant Seal Research Group's Facebook page that they have sighted Orcas today. Pods of Orcas patrol the islands and some are expert at taking pup from rock pools.

As usual, we didn't see any, but we may be lucky on another visit,

What we did see was amazing. All too soon, a little Britten-Norman Islander arrived to take us back to Stanley

The sky was cloudless and the sea crystal-clear as we tried to spot dolphins or whales on the way home.
The Lady Elizabeth, stuck at the end of the harbour. Arrived 1912
Soon, we were back in Stanley. The airport must be one of the quickest to get through in the world. Ten minutes later we were home, checking behind the sofa for any stray elephant seals.  But all we had brought back were memories and photographs....


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