Falkland Islands – Wildlife: It’s not all penguins!!!

Today, I hope, the Falklands are becoming more famous for the wildlife than the war; they certainly deserve to be. I’m sure to many people the Islands are an unknown, or known for only what happened back in the early 1980s. The Falklands are so much more than that and the spectacular wildlife is just the tip of the iceberg, but a good place to start.

Whilst I seem to spend much of my time looking at, counting and protecting birds, I’m actually more interested in mammals and the Falklands has some good ones to take an interest it. However, like the birds on and around the Islands, the mammals are relatively few in species but big on numbers. While there I saw elephant seals, sea lions, Commerson’s dolphins, orca and possibly a fur seal; all these were new to me (in the flesh at least) and I spent hours watching them. There were also plenty of brown hares in and around Darwin where I stayed for the first night, but these are an introduced species and occasionally seen around where I live.

The elephant seals were a great sight, lying out on the beaches of Carcass and Sea Lion Islands. They seemed to spend most of the day lazing around in the sun, particularly the females and youngsters. The males, despite their huge size, were generally more active, with the ‘beachmasters’ frequently having to chase of the other males trying to sneak into their harems and have their way with the females. The sight of the males fighting is not for the feint hearted and nor is the view of the males forcing themselves on the local ladies, with the young ones still hanging around close by and occasionally getting crushed underneath the heavyweights.

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The sea lions were fewer in number and I only saw large numbers on Bleaker Island, with the occasional one or two on Carcass and Sea Lion Islands. Standing in the tussock grass at the top of a shallow cliff on Bleaker, I spent a good while watching a group of fifty relaxing on the flat rocks at the cliff base. There was one huge, aristocratic looking male patrolling around his own group of females with the occasional potential challenger appearing and quickly hopping off again before the big guy caught sight of them.

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Tussock grass is not the safest place to stand looking at sea lions, even at the top of a cliff, as the seals can easily climb up unnoticed to spend time in the shelter of the big stands of grass, and indeed, I did stumble upon one or two. Fortunately, I didn’t come face-to-face with a big old male as they have a fair turn of speed and I wouldn’t want to be caught by one. I eventually moved on and sat in a more open area overlooking a small bay and watched a mixed group playing in the waves. I got a good view of two males fighting; firstly sizing each other up on the rocks and then chasing into the water, scrapping around in the surging waves.

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I saw Commerson’s dolphins three times on my trip; the second time there were a couple riding the bow wave of the boat on the way between West Point and Carcass Islands; a really nice end to a day, on a calmer crossing than in the morning going the other way. The first and third sightings were groups surfing the big waves crashing into beaches on Pebble and Saunders Island. On Pebble, the view was fleeting but on Saunders I stood watching them for ages with up to twenty playing just off the coast.

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The best mammal sighting, and perhaps the wildlife highlight of my trip, was of two pods of orca (killer whale) off the coasts of Sea Lion Island. Throughout my trip, talking to people who had already been to the island, I was told that orca were there, but being a pessimist, I expected them to have pushed off by the time I turned up. How wrong was I? The first afternoon I spent several hours watching one pod of four patrol up and down the shoreline, trying to snatch an unaware elephant seal in the water. The following morning, I watched a group of five in the same place, with some coming into a small pool only a few metres from the water’s edge. There was a large group of southern giant petrels (more about them later) waiting further out from the coast to snatch anything remaining from a kill and periodically they would all suddenly lift and descend on an area around the orca but usually returned empty handed. The following afternoon and evening I spent more time watching the orca and saw two pods, one on each side of the island. It was quite incredible to learn that they had been focussing their attentions on the big male elephant seals, the big bullies of the beaches, and had taken quite a few over the preceding few days. The males on the edge of the groups (like the one in the picture below) often looked nervously out to sea, checking if the orca were out their lurking in wait. In all the time I spent watching them, I didn’t see a kill, or at least not of anything big. I think a penguin or two may have been taken as a light snack with the petrels quickly clearing up any leftovers but it would have been quite something to see the orca take a fully grown male elephant seal.

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The orca sighting actually ticked another item off my bucket list; so two down, quite a few more to go!

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