Gentoo penguin and chick

Well there’s nothing like a cute penguin picture to get you all hooked, and there is nothing more delightful then a Gentoo penguin and chick if you ask my humble opinion. Out of the five different types of penguins found here in The Falklands, the Gentoo is my absolute favourite. Others will have different opinions, ranging from the dynamic and enigmatic Rockhoppers. the majestic King Penguins, the raucous Magellanics or the unmistakeable, almost flamboyant, Macaronis.

Since our arrival here in October 2019 we have been fortunate to have already seen all five types. There is one famed Macaroni penguin, who has made his home in amongst a colony of Rockhoppers out on Sea Lion Island. This is not unusual, there is a colony of Rockhoppers mixing with a few Macaronis on the north side of Berkeley Sound, an area to the north of Stanley. This collaboration of Macaronis and Rockhoppers has produced a few of the wonderfully named ‘Rockaronis’. Also residing there, with an equally impressive title is a ‘Mocha-hopper’, which is a brown, not black, Rockhopper.

Isn’t nature wonderful!

King penguins, arguably the most easily recognisable of all penguins thanks mainly to a certain brand of chocolate biscuits, are one of the biggest tourist draws here. They certainly pay their way with tourists and cruise ship passengers parting with handsome sums to visit the King penguin colonies. Most famous of all is Volunteer Point situated on a remote spot on the eastern coast of East Falkand. After bumping and jolting in a 4×4 for about 1.5hrs over diddle dee, scrub, heath and moorland, you reach a spectacular beach which hosts King, Gentoo and Magellanic penguin colonies. The Gentoo and King penguins have their colonies on open ground whilst the Magellanics, the shyest of the lot, make their homes in burrows in the sand, peat and heathland. It is quite fun watching them pop their heads up from their burrows to see what’s going on. You have to be careful where you walk so as not to disturb them or put your foot through the roof of a burrow. This can actually be quite a challenge as in some places they have excavated a whole series of tunnels and burrows in the land and caution is required!

The majestic King penguins

King penguins and Gentoos are very curious and will come close if you sit quietly. They can spook quite easily so stay still and you will be rewarded. We had a magical experience on Sea Lion Island when we sat calmy by a colony of Gentoo and some came over to us and started gently pecking shoelaces and clothing. One even dropped a small stone on my leg as a gift. King penguins, the largest breeding penguin in the Islands, will also pass closely by if you are quiet. Sitting quietly observing them makes you appreciate how stunning their plummage is and how hard they work to keep all the feathers clean, tidy and waterproofed. They are constantly preening as if they know how photogenic they are and don’t want to be caught looking untidy!

The charismatic Rockhopper, the smallest of the Falkland Island penguins.

Rockhoppers can be more difficult to locate and photograph given their penchant for living on clifftops. They are the smallest of the penguins in the Falklands, and their choice of habitat means they have to be agile. However, despite saying they are agile, they always look as if every time they jump it is their first time doing so. They give each little hop their undivided attention as if bracing themselves to actually jump. Then they pause and do it all again. It is truly amazing seeing where they build their colonies and how they clamber up the cliff faces to get home each day after a hard day’s fishing. They are very distinctive with yellow, straight, thin eyebrows. The Macaroni penguin has a mass of yellowy/gold plumes which sprout from the forehead. When you see the two of them together, Rockhopper and Macaroni, there is no mistaking who is who!

Spot the Macaroni amongst the Rockhoppers….

Gypsy Cove, which is the nearest and most accesible penguin colony to Stanley, houses a large colony of Magellanic penguins. They have distinctive black and white bands on their head, neck and chest areas. They are also known locally as Jackass penguins as they have a very distinctive braying call. Some of them have burrows very close to the established footpath so penguin wardens are employed at the height of the tourist season to ensure the penguins have safe passage between their burrows and the sea. Legend has it, and newspaper reports tend to suggest it is a true story, that a few years back a penguin was kidnapped from here and taken aboard a cruise ship seemingly destined for a lifetime of adventure in Asia. A cleaner on the cruise ship had an almighty surprise when they happened upon the penguin in the shower cubicle!! It was returned, and the people responsible for the kidnap heavily fined. Hence there are now penguin wardens employed to protect from over zealous tourists.

That was clearly taking the ppppppick up a penguin mantra too far!

Magellanics emerging from their underground burrows.

The penguins of the Falkand Islands are one of the area’s biggest draws. They are a delight to watch. On land they may appear awkward and you can’t help but wonder why some build their colonies so far from the beach, but the moment they hit the water they become streamlined topredoes. It is truly magical to watch them frolicking in the waves, fishing and leaping about. The speed they can build up has to be seen to be believed. It is one of my favourite sights watching them whizz into shore and then pop out on the beach. Some are more refined at this than others who stand up too quickly only to be bowled over by the next breaking wave. You can easily ‘waste’ an hour watching the shoreline for penguins returning from a day fishing.

King penguins at Volunteer Point

So, if you find yourself down Falkands way come and seek out these fascinating creatures. Each type has their own character, style and behavioural pattern and you really can watch them for hours.

Just don’t be tempted to take one back with you!!!

What have we done…?

This time last year the Falkland Islands (F.I.) were just somewhere jotted down on our travel wish-list and a place imprinted on our memory because of the dramatic events back in 1982. We wanted to visit The Falklands for the wildlife and wild scenery, but it seemed expensive and challenging to get to, so it is likely it would have remained on the wish-list for many a year! Then life, as it tends to do, threw up an opportunity that we could not ignore. After having spent 30 years in the Metropolitan Police, an offer arose to go and work in the Royal Falkland Islands Police, based in the capital, Stanley. I won’t bore you with how it all came about, but Richard Sabin, at the Natural History Museum, has an awful lot to answer for! We had the pleasure of meeting him back in March 2019, and his enthusiasm and knowledge about the F.I. piqued our interest again, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Dramatic scenery of East Falkland

So here we are nearly 8000 miles from home, surrounded by penguins, sea lions, seals, dolphins, whales and all manner of sea birds including albatross.

A Gentoo penguin. One of the five species of penguin that make the Falklands their home. More of them later…

On our first day out to Gypsy Cove, which is one of the nearest beach areas to Stanley, we were delighted to spot both Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins. The dorsal fin of the Peale’s dolphin gets the heart racing as it looks almost shark-like. It is quite tall, and described in books as falcate, which means hooked, almost sickle like. It is very different from the gentler, rounded dorsal fin of the Commerson’s.

As an enthusiastic, but amateur naturalist I do like it when I read the word “unmistakeable” in the guide book when describing an animal. I like to know, without doubt, what I have seen! The Commerson’s dolphin is truly unmistakeable. It is small, stocky, and has distinctive black and white markings. It has a black head, predominantly white body, black dorsal fin and flippers and black tail flukes. In contrast the Peale’s dolphins are less distinct. They are more black and grey with a whitish/grey patch on the belly/chest region and a white blaze (think go-faster stripe!) on the tailstock.

Peale’s Dolphin – note the distinct, tall, hooked dorsal fin
Commerson’s dolphin – note the lower, more rounded, gentler dorsal fin.

We spent the afternoon watching both of these dolphin species meandering in and out of the kelp beds. The beds are quite close in to the shore enabling excellent viewing.

Peale’s dolphins at the edge of the kelp bed, Gypsy Cove.
An “unmistakeable” Commerson’s dolphin chasing alongside the Concordia Ferry between East and West Falkland.

Since those initial sightings we have been fortunate to see both types of dolphin regularly in and around the harbour in Stanley, another area called the Canache, around Gypsy Cove and Cape Pembroke, and dramatically around the wreck of the Lady Liz, a very picturesque shipwreck that is a landmark here in Stanley.

The wreck of the Lady Liz in Stanley harbour, at dusk.

I was even lucky enough to view some Commerson’s from the window of the Police Station!

On one memorable afternoon, we were sat in glorious sunshine on the end of the jetty when a trio of Commerson’s swam under the water right in front of us, like three synchronised torpedoes, their white bodies reflecting dramatically from under the water. There were also three sea lions lounging at the end of the jetty. They are there so often it is rumoured that they are employed by the tourist board!

A white Commerson’s torpedo.

So the good news is that now we know what to look for on the dolphin front, we can start seeing what else is out there!

My quest to rationalize my career choices

Being well informed is really hard, it is both a blessing and a curse. The more you learn, the more guilty you begin to feel to even walk on the earth but the more you learn, the more you understand that the actions you take in your day to day life can make a real difference. Growing up, I wanted to make a difference. Most people assume that the quest to make a difference is often driven by selfishness – I somewhat agree with this statement.

As a child, I was overwhelmed with empathy for all other living things, I wanted to give my leftover pizza hut buffet to the homeless, I wanted to take lost distressed baby rabbits whose Mum had been got in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident to the nearby wildlife rescue unit and I felt guilty for stepping on snails during a nighttime stroll with our family dog. These actions and feelings were not taught to me – they came innately and often left me wondering “why did I deserve to be so lucky whilst others were not so fortunate?”. Was I being selfish, I am still unsure.

As an adult I now debate with myself about whether the path I have chosen is making enough of a difference – do I have the potential to do more? Be more? Help others more?

This leads me on to the statement “the quest to make a difference is often driven by selfishness”. I love the outdoors, I love forests, mountains, and coral reefs, I love dogs, I love the beach, I love my friends and I especially love sitting on a boat and hoping to see a whale…if I get seabirds, porpoises or seals, I will still be in my element but if a whale appears I will be ecstatic. I could sit and watch them in the open ocean for hours and hours without ever becoming an inch bored. I love how evolution and natural selection has created all of these fantastic creatures, communities, and ecosystems that all interact and even depend on one another to survive. Earth is utterly fantastic.

Because of my love for the natural world and my favourites within it, I selfishly have sort out a career studying whales and the marine ecosystem. I do this because I enjoy it and I want to protect it and even if my best efforts to do what I can to protect and sustain the marine environment fall short, I will at least contribute to our knowledge of this system and educate the younger generations about these awesome creatures  – they are just super cool.

I am sure there will still be days that I ponder whether I have made the right career choice. Such questions as “if I became a climate scientist or an environmental lawyer will I have made more of an impact? will I have contributed to the prevention of the climate crisis, poverty or dramatic reductions in biodiversity?” and perhaps the answer to this question is yes, but I have set myself a different quest, a selfish one… to become an ecological statistician that studies whales, because they are super cool and others need to bathe in their awesomeness.