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Just back from: The Falklands

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29 March 2012

South America specialist, Patrick Griffin, describes his recent wildlife-filled adventure in the Falkland Islands.

Day 1 - Darwin

We arrived at Mt Pleasant airport and entered one of the most manic airport terminals I've been in. Immigration, customs and the baggage hall are all in the one small hangar terminal. Everyone is trying to grab their luggage and get to immigration, blocking off everyone else on the way. Once through we were met by Graham Didlick who took us to his home, Darwin House, where we met his wife Margaret. It's a lovely home set on a bay in the settlement of Darwin and close to Goose Green, made famous in the 1982 conflict.

From here you can do battlefield tours or just walk surrounding countryside. We were taken south to Brody Bridge, the most southerly suspension bridge in the world. It's picturesque but a bit run-down now and you can't cross it, but it makes a great start to a 7km hike back to Darwin. We encountered our first full-on Falkland Island wind here on our hike and it is pretty cold, but the empty countryside was worth the hike.

We made our way back to Goose Green and saw two sides of the conflict: the community hall where Argentine forces held over 100 locals captive for 29 days; and the large farming shed where the British held Argentinean prisoners - the side of the shed still has POW PG painted on it. There are also the remains of the Vicar of Bray ship to be seen on the way back to Darwin. In the evening, a fantastic beef cobbler rounded off the day.

Day 2 - Saunders Island

A walk around the bay gave us our first penguin - a gentoo that was on his own and not normally here. But as he was our first penguin he took our attention. We then boarded the small FIGAS plane, which took us from Darwin over West Falkland to Saunders Island, owned by David Pole-Evans and his family.

This is where you can see some of the finest wildlife in the Falklands. David took us to the Rookery where we saw large numbers of megellanic and gentoo penguins. The megellanic penguins were on top of their burrows or partially submerged in them, with their heads poking through. On a stunning nearby beach were quite a few gentoos, coming in out of the sea to battle the strong winds rushing out to sea. It was a beautiful scene!

We then headed to a colony of rockhopper penguins. There must have been over a thousand of them, bracing themselves against the wind as their young malted off their baby fur. We were able to get quite close to them, as they didn't mind us being there. Before heading back to our home for the night, we went to a cliff with where young black-browed albatrosses were waiting for their parents to return with food and to also shake off their baby growth.

Day 3 - Saunders Island

Today we went to the Neck, a stunning stretch of sand between two high hills, with beautiful but diverse beaches on both sides. It is awesome and one of the best highlights of the islands. There's an amazing amount of penguins here: thousands of gentoo, with good numbers of Megellanic and rockhopper and also a small colony of King Penguins too. We also saw our one and only macaroni penguin. For twitters there's also black browed albatross, imperial cormorants and the over-inquisitive striated caracara, which liked to hover a little too close to our heads with outstretched talons.

David left us to our own devices for six hours, which was fantastic. The main stretch of beach is wonderful and is perfect for a long walk when you want to get away from all the birds. But on your way back there'll be more penguins coming out of the sea to join the thousands already there. The wind here is constant and got colder and more ferocious as the day went on. Hat and gloves are a must!

Day 4 - Weddell Island

Another flight took us to Weddell, the largest of the outer islands, population: 2. And the cold winds were on force today - it was freezing! Martin and Jane Beaton, who hosted our stay superbly, run the island. Martin first took us on a four-wheel drive around a small portion of the island. The winds and rain made most animals take shelter, but after some lovely windswept beaches we came across a head sticking out of the growth - our first sea lion.

He then took off right in front of us with his mane blowing in the wind. As he jumped onto some rocks in the sea, he turned directly to look at us. He was huge and right in front of our vehicle so we had an awesome view of him, before he jumped into the sea to swim off. The island also gave us distant views of Commerson's and Peale's dolphins. Another highlight was two Patagonian foxes huddled close together, with the male showing off for us. In the late afternoon, Jane took us to Mark Point, again one of my highlights of the trip.

Thousands of gentoo penguins nest here. Sitting down, they will walk up quite close to you. From the main group, we followed a march of penguins to the cliffs for fantastic views and amazing wildlife: porpoising penguins, black browed albatross, caracara and another sea lion that must have had his share of penguins as he wasn't on the hunt. There was so much going on it was hard to know where to look first. And to top it off, Martin made a fantastic meal of upland goose, Falkland's lamb and teaberry Pavlova, with some wonderful teaberry vodka on the side...

Day 5 - Sea Lion Island

Another flight, another island. The wind was just as strong and just as cold too! Jenny, the manager of the lodge on the island, took us for a short tour to some of the main wildlife points. But the real highlight is Elephant Corner, a beach just 10 minutes walk from the lodge and home to a good number of elephant seals. During mating season, from late October to November, there can be over 1000 elephant seals on the beach and a number of orca too, working together for a decent meal. But today there were probably about 20-30 spread out on the beach. Certainly a lot less, but still a great sight as you could get up quite close to them. In peak mating season, I can't imagine there's much room on the beach to move!

After a short while I had the whole beach to myself to enjoy the wildlife. Elephant seals are quite grumpy with each other and they often bark to any other annoying seal. But it's when they play-fight together that you see how huge and powerful these animals are; during mating season, it's fighting for real. Twitters will also enjoy gentoo and megellanic penguins, numerous sea birds, as well as the Cobb's Wren. For everyone else, it's back to the elephant seals.

Day 6 - Stanley

This morning I went back to the elephant seals and once again I had the beach to myself, getting as close as I thought I safely could to these massive animals. Where else can you walk to your own beach with only elephant seals to keep you company? We then flew back to East Falkland and to Stanley, the smallest capital city in the world. I visited the small but very interesting museum, which takes in the marine life and history of the islands, as well as the 1982 conflict. It is well worth visiting and as Stanley is very small, it's easily done while you're there.

Day 7 - Volunteer Point

Today we had a full-day tour to Volunteer Point to the north of Stanley. In 4x4s we drove through some lovely countryside, some of which had some of the heaviest fighting in the '82 conflict. Then an hour and a half of some great off-road driving and we got to Volunteer Point, which has the largest colony of king penguins in the Falklands and is also the most accessible colony in the world. Winds were on force as usual but for the large area there wasn't too many other people about (note that on cruise days, there will be a lot more coming up for tours).

The penguins were wonderful to watch, looking after their fluffy young and trumpeting at the sky. The main colony is within a ring of stones, which you can't cross, but other penguins are happy to come up to you if you sit down. It was great watching the parents look after their young, and the odd 'security guard' penguin patrolling around to protect them. Not far from the colony is the stunning beach. Although it would be freezing to jump in, it's a beautiful crescent shaped beach and every now and again penguins of one kind or another will come out or go back in. After a few other travellers took their photos, they left me alone with the beach and a few penguins for some wonderful views of the south Atlantic - a perfect end to my week in the Falklands.

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