Falkland Islands: Revisiting Remembrance

At this time of year when we remember the country’s war dead my mind is automatically drawn back to my visit to the Falkland Islands. Two years on from my trip to the South Atlantic, I thought about writing another long blog post about the military history aspects of my visit but after re-reading my post about visiting the battlefields, I’m not sure I can put my thoughts and feelings any better – that post can be found here:

BLOG POST: Falkland Islands – Visiting the Battlefields

Strangely, after reading so many books about the 1982 war over the years, I didn’t revisit them in the months before my trip. I’m not sure why I didn’t but perhaps it enabled me to take a fresh look at the war when actually being in the locations in which it was fought and when talking to people who were there. Since my return home, I have gone back to some of those books I previously read and I’ve finished many that I hadn’t read before. Having been in the Islands, the images that the words in those books paint are now so much more vivid.

One thing that really strikes me, therefore, in this period of remembrance, is that no matter how hard those of us who have no experience of war try to imagine it and understand what our veterans have been through, it is very difficult to do so. However, actually setting foot in the places where the battles happened and talking to people who were there makes those connections so much easier and stronger.

Not everyone can get all the way down to the Falklands, or even to the fields of Flanders, but in this country we are surrounded by people who have fought or who have been affected by war as civilians, either a long time ago or, indeed, very recently. Taking a moment at this time of year to listen to those who have been through those experiences can only help to aid our understanding and strengthen our remembrance.

There are so many aspects from my trip that will stay with me forever but perhaps the strongest and most poignant memory is of seeing the marker buoy identifying the final resting place of HMS Antelope beneath the cold, dark and wind-blown waves of San Carlos Water.  I was thinking of that spot at 11 o’clock yesterday morning.

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Falkland Islands – Saunders Island: Wildlife Out on the Edge

Saunders is the fourth largest island in the Falklands archipelago and was also the fourth place I stayed during my trip last year. Whilst technically it is around 13 miles long and about the same wide, this is rather misleading as it’s an oddly shaped place. It has three parts joined by low isthmuses and if the sea levels were a little higher, Saunders would split into three. The largest section of the island has the only settlement, called Saunders Settlement, funnily enough! The island has mountains, open moor, marsh and grassland, and, at its edges, beaches and steep cliffs.

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After landing on the island aboard a FIGAS flight, visitors are picked up by the island’s owners and transported from the landing strip, through the settlement, and out to the accommodation. The settlement is a typical jumbled collection of buildings, both the home-like and the agricultural, from sheds and shacks to houses and barns.

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In amongst the buildings is the island shop – something of an experience! It’s a barn-like Aladdin’s Cave of food with high wooden shelves of packets and tins, in amongst a jumble of boxes across the floor and freezers with home-made ready meals. There’s no chance of going hungry there but a bit of self-catering provides a break from the great and hearty meals laid on elsewhere.

Whilst visitors can stay in the settlement, there seems little point as the most important sights are some distance away and there are two places to stay nearer to them. I stayed at the Rookery Inn on the north coast of the main part of the island, which is about an hour’s drive from the settlement. The other accommodation is at ‘The Neck’, by the north-western isthmus, which is one of the few places where visitors to the Falklands can find king penguins.

When first arriving, the Rookery Inn doesn’t seem all that inviting – it looks like a shipping container with windows. However, inside, it’s a comfy, clean and warm cabin, with an open-plan kitchen, lounge and dinning room, two bedrooms and a shower room. It’s actually a little calm, metal-box oasis in the middle of nowhere. It was the simplest of the accommodation I stayed in but that was very much part of its charm. The white wrinkly-tin walls set off by the luminous red wrinkly-tin roof, it stands out in its surroundings but any building would do there. It looks out over the cliffs to the South Atlantic, the wind blowing straight into its face.

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I arrived in the morning and was at the cabin by lunchtime. I spent the rest of the day walking up the nearby Rookery Mountain (422m) and then down towards the nearby beach. On top of the mountain the winds off the ocean have scoured the rocks and boulders, leaving strange carvings, almost like solid lenticular clouds.

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Writing of clouds, the afternoon would have been almost cloudless except that the island was making it’s own weather. The brisk wind blowing in off the ocean was lifted as it hit the land and rose up the steep mountainside. At it reached the ridge, the air condensed and clouds formed, cloaking the tops in a fog which reached out across island.

The beaches on Saunders are like many of those elsewhere in the Falklands – bright light-coloured sands washed over by turquoise waves. Standing on top of Rookery Mountain towards the beaches, with a stunningly deep blue sky overhead made for an equally stunning view.

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Saunders is another of the Important Bird Areas designated by Birdlife International in the islands and the wildlife has got to be the main reason to visit. Around 50 bird species have been recorded on the island with around 40 breeding or probably breeding. All five species of penguin found breeding in the Falklands can be seen at Saunders. Of particular note are the 7,000 pairs each of gentoo and rockhopper penguins and 4,000 pairs of magellanic penguins, as well as 11,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses. The Rookery Cabin is a great place to stay to see all of these species with the breeding cliffs for the albatrosses starting almost outside the door and the large rockhopper colonies (rookeries) being just a 25 minute walk away along the cliff tops. The magellanic and gentoo penguins can be found down at the beaches with the former nesting in burrows just behind the sand and the latter wandering further inland to their colonies.

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Sitting at the top of the cliffs near to the cabin, I watched the albatrosses for hours as they glided past on the stiff ocean breeze and came into land – another place where they could skim just over my head. The cries of the birds reverberated along the steep rocky edges, all mixed in with the sounds of the ocean below and the wind whipping across the ground. The view laid out in front was of miles of cliffs dotted with the white birds sitting on their nests with others coming and going – a true wildlife spectacular.

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Further along the cliff top was the rockhopper rookery – I first found it during the first evening as night was starting to fall. After cresting rise after rise, I eventually started to hear and smell them, some distance before topping the final ridge and seeing the round colonies in an open cliff top valley. The penguins form several large breeding groups in the short-clipped grass above the tumbling cliff which these diminutive penguins bounce up and down. This was the location where the BBC filmed parts of its ‘Penguins – Spy in the Huddle’ series – this clip shows their troubles getting up the cliff!

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For the only full day on the island, I spent more time with the rockhoppers and wandered along the cliffs amongst the albatrosses, and then walked down to the further beach, back towards the settlement. There was plenty of time to watch the Commerson’s dolphins playing in the crashing surf and to wander amongst the gentoo and magellanic penguins.

The original British settlement in the Falklands, Port Egmont, was established on Saunders in 1765. Yes that seems a long time ago and the tumbled down remains of the first buildings lie there true to that but there is a sense of continued history on the island that is perhaps stronger than elsewhere because of their presence. The links from that first settlement to the events of 1982 and on to now are in the aura of the place and almost tangible; in fact, they are. You can touch the stones of those first buildings, you can touch the Argentinian landing craft now lying derelict on the beach and you can touch the ‘there and now’ in everything. Throughout my stay amongst the islands, there was a true sense of an ongoing history, of people living it and of a place touched by it. Yet, what is obvious there is that our impact on the land is but a tiny scar in its history; the natural history is so much more, so much richer.

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Like elsewhere amongst moors, bays, mountains and beaches, the people are the link to the past and the future. In my hour long journeys to and from the cabin, I learned a little more about the experiences of those living there both now and in 1982. The views were strong but considered, robust but practical, and above all else, there was a sense of being in tune with the land.

Saunders is where I felt the most like I was on the edge of the world and that’s what made the cabin all the more homely – comfort on the edge. With seeing no one for 24 hours, with the exception of a passing ship, and a view out into the harsh South Atlantic, there was nowhere else I stayed quite as remote or quite like it.

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I wrote previously that Pebble Island was like the Falklands in miniature; I don’t quite think the same can be said for Saunders. However, Saunders does typify the Falklands in some ways – it is what it is, the place has a ‘take us as you find us’ kind of way about it and it is no pastiche of itself, made softer or gentler for outside eyes. Will I go back? Almost certainly!

Falkland Islands: The Wildlife – a whole new world of avifauna (yep that’s birds!)

In a previous post about my trip to the Falklands, I wrote about the mammals of the islands (and great they are too!) but I have to write about the birds too. The Falklands, quite simply, must be one of the most amazing birdwatching locations in the world and not just because of the penguins.

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I have to admit here that I do keep a list of birds I see, but as part of a larger list of wildlife I encounter each year including mammals, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. My target was to see at least 50 species that I had never seen before and I very nearly got there. I saw 52 species on the islands but these included three that we have in the UK; peregrine, house sparrow and mallard (the latter two were introduced by settlers). So 49 wasn’t a bad final total and, if added to the two species I saw on Ascension Island (common myna and yellow canary), I got just over my target (if cheating a little).

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In someways, the Falklands is a bit like another place I have visited for the wildlife, Iceland, as there is not a huge number of common species but the islands have a mass of individual birds to make the place spectacular. The birds are also very tame and have almost no fear of people, which makes getting up close (within limits) very easy. Being a group of small islands in the middle of the South Atlantic, you might think that seabirds would dominate but there is also a good range birds associated with freshwater and inland areas. It’s very difficult to know where to start describing all the bird species so I will mention just a few; the highlights! Geese were everywhere on the islands, and of the four species, the upland goose is the most ubiquitous (and quite tasty – I had upland goose pate a couple of times). The steamer ducks including the flightless Falkland species are also widely seen and they are part of the typical island coastal scene.

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There are few raptor species in the islands but those that are there can be spotted quite frequently. Turkey vultures are seen more than most and it’s common to see small groups of them circling high above the settlements while others are found alone, quartering the long grass. The variable hawks are in many places and, like buzzards, seem to like sitting on the top of high perches like telegraph poles. Peregrines are less frequently observed but I had a dusk encounter with one when I was wandering back from the rockhopper colony on Saunders Island; it circled slowly around me, checking me out, before landing a short distance away. It let me get very close before it took off and disappeared over the hill.

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The caracaras also have to be mentioned and no visit to the Falklands appears to be complete without being targeted by one of the striated variety, or Johnny Rooks as they are known locally. I was the focus of their unwanted attentions on a number of occasions with them usually trying to steal my sunglasses or lunch (never successfully, gladly). They are quite comical, yet cunning, and when they know they have been spotted, will act nonchalantly and pretend to be uninterested but will suddenly aim straight for you if you get distracted. They can be quite fearsome and don’t stand any nonsense from each other or, in fact, much larger birds like the impressive south giant petrel. Their screeching at each other and general commotion while quarrelling over food was a very common sound down on some of the beaches I visited.

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One of the most impressive birds around the islands is the southern giant petrel, or ‘stinker’ to the locals. These huge, dark, sinister-looking birds with great long wings (2 metre span) are carrion eaters and spend their days gliding along the coasts or across the inland moors searching for their next meal. Graceful in the air, they are awkward on the ground and look almost prehistoric, with a strange dance when they try to claim possession over a carcass.

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However, they are not quite as big or as the beautiful the black-browed albatross with a wingspan of up to nearly 2.5 metres. There are around 400,000 pairs in the Falklands and I saw them at two of their large colonies on West Point Island and Saunders Island. It was breathtaking to see these huge birds coming in to land against very strong headwinds and sometimes gliding just inches above my head. The sound of them calling to their mates is also one of the sounds of my trip and I could spend days sat within the colonies watching them come and go.

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The colony of imperial shags on Bleaker Island was one of the most impressive sights with thousands of birds tightly packed together with only pecking distance between their round nests. The constant stream of birds arriving and leaving the colony increased as dusk came and the sight of the moon rising behind them against a lavender sky is one of the most vivid memories of my trip. These birds look to be black and white but in the right light, their plumage turns to almost metallic iridescent greens and blues.

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Where there are large numbers of nesting birds, the Falkland skuas are sure to be found. The dumpiness of the birds on the ground belies their ferocity and they can have a go at humans as well as their usual feathered quarry. Walking around the outside of a penguin colony, the ground was usually dotted with the broken shells of the eggs stolen by the skuas.

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Lastly, what many people seem to come for – the penguins; you just can’t ignore them. It was great to see all five Falklands species and most in good, or even stunning numbers. The rockhoppers are the most approachable of the species and will often come to inspect you and make it hard to keep the regulation six metres away. They are also the most comical of penguins and seeing one of them sneezing must be one of the cutest sights in the animal world. There are good-sized colonies on a number of the islands I visited including Pebble, Saunders, Bleaker and Sea Lion.

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Another of the best memories of my trip was approaching the colonies at the Rookery on Saunders Island, just as dusk was falling. I walked along the hillsides above the ocean hoping that cresting the next rise would reveal where the rockhoppers were but it was the sound, then the smell, that reached me well before the sight. I could hear and smell them from at least 100 metres away and below at least two rises. As they came into sight, the huge colonies laid out in front of me, with the ocean and further coast of the island set as a backdrop; the setting sun dropping behind the hills. The macaroni penguins, which look very similar to the rockhoppers, are very limited in numbers on the islands I visited and I only saw them on Pebble Island, with them having to be pointed out to me. The magellanic and gentoo penguins are much more wary than the rockhoppers and less approachable. They tend to run off well before you get close to them but I managed to get some nice scenic shots of gentoos on some of the beaches. The gentoos and magellanics nest in smaller colonies than the rockhoppers but, again, I saw them on a number of the islands I visited including Pebble, Saunders and Bleaker.

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Without doubt, the king penguins are the most beautiful of the Falklands species. They are also the most difficult to find. Whilst they can be found on Saunders Island, I was staying quite a good walk away from their colony, so I made the very memorable trip from Stanley out to Volunteer Point. It takes over two hours to drive to the point, half on the dirt tracks and half off-road – getting there is an adventure in itself. However, seeing them in their colonies and on the nearby beaches is one of the must see scenes of the Falklands.

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There is so much more to write about the birds of the Falklands but I don’t think I quite have enough time. I might return to this subject in due course but I will also have to return to the islands to see them again! The following is the complete list of birds I saw in the Falklands:

Black-necked Swan

Flying Steamer Duck

Falkland Island Steamer Duck

Upland Goose

Kelp Goose

Ashy-headed Goose

Ruddy-headed Goose

Crested Duck

Chiloe Wigeon

Mallard

Cinnamon Teal

Speckled Teal

Silver Teal

King Penguin

Gentoo Penguin

Rockhopper Penguin

Macaroni Penguin

Magellanic Penguin

Black-browed Albatross

Southern Giant Petrel

White-tufted Grebe

Silvery Grebe

Imperial Shag

Rock Shag

Striated Caracara

Turkey-Vulture

Southern Caracara

Peregrine Falcon

Red-backed Hawk

Snowy Sheathbill

Magellanic Oystercatcher

Blackish Oystercatcher

Two-banded Plover

Rufous-chested Dotterel

Magellanic Snipe

White-rumped Sandpiper

Dolphin Gull

Kelp Gull

Brown-hooded Gull

South American Tern

Antarctic Tern

Falkland Skua

Dark-faced Ground Tyrant

Tussicbird

Falkland Grass Wren

Cobb’s Wren

Falkland Thrush

House Sparrow

Falkland Pipit

Black-chinned Siskin

Long-tailed Meadowlark

Canary-winged Finch

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Falkland Islands – Pebble Island: The Falklands in Miniature

After a bit of a break from writing up my Falklands trip, I thought I would publish a few more blog posts over the coming weeks – the first one about Pebble Island.

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Pebble was the first of the offshore islands I stayed on during my trip and it certainly has a bit of everything; scenery, history and wildlife. In fact, I would say, from what I have seen elsewhere, it is the Falklands in miniature. The island has mountains and long sandy beaches with turquoise seas, a human history made more vivid by the events of 1982 and wildlife in abundance.

Pebble is the eastern-most of the larger islands off the north coast of West Falkland. It’s a big island with an area of 88 square km, 30km long and just less than 10km across at its widest and you would struggle to walk it in a day. It has a very small population, mostly comprising the owner and staff of the tourist hotel (Pebble Island Lodge).

Like most of the Falkland Islands, Pebble is an odd shape with an indented coastline and some wide open bays, it has rocky cliffs and large swathes of open diddle-dee heath. The rugged and hilly west of the island is very different to the lower lying and marshy east and the two larger landmasses that make up the island are joined by a narrow isthmus on which sits the only settlement. The main landing strips sit just to the west of the settlement up a small rise towards the first of the three hills on the island, conveniently named First Mountain – the others being Middle Mountain and Marble Mountain. I visited the beach where there were once tonnes of semi-precious pebbles (after which the island is named) but after over-exploitation, there are very few left and I didn’t see a single one.

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The population was once much bigger, with the settlement being larger than the current handful of residents need. It is a typical Falklands village with too many buildings for the present population, many appear semi-abandoned, but the buildings that are used are in good repair and cared for. The old farm buildings down by the jetties are particularly spectacular in their deteriorating stark and rustic charm and lit an interest in me to capture images of these places around the other islands I visited.

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The war had a particular impact on Pebble as, unlike the majority of the offshore islands, it had a significant Argentine presence and it was used as a forward operating base for some of their aircraft. Within easy reach of San Carlos Water to the east, the location chosen for the British landings, Pebble and its aircraft were a serious threat to the amphibious task force. To remove this threat, the British special forces mounted a night-time raid which took out 11 aircraft and rendered the landing strip unusable (although it was the Argentines who blew up the strip).

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There are also significant signs of the wider war on the island with the debris of two shot down Argentine Dagger aircraft strewn across the land and a memorial to mark the crash site of an Argentine Learjet. High up on First Mountain also stands a cross marking Pebble as the closest land to the final resting place of the British destroyer, HMS Coventry. After successfully taking down numerous Argentine bombers, with her frigate partner HMS Broadsword, she finally succumbed to one of the air raids she had been helping to protect the British bridgehead from.

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And then there’s the wildlife! The Island has been designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International due to its abundance of avian residents. Pebble was the first place I saw penguins; a nice little group of Gentoos on Elephant Beach on my first afternoon. There are coastal Gentoo colonies but also an inland colony to which the penguins trudge over a kilometre from the coast, while a big Rockhopper colony spreads out above the cliffs where the diminutive birds bounce up and down the steep rock face. There are also a small number of macaronis amongst the Rockhoppers and colonies of Magellanics along the coast. To the east, there are good numbers of wetland birds and, as usual, plenty of geese everywhere and many of the smaller birds that can be found throughout the islands. I saw Commerson’s dolphins surfing the crashing waves coming into one of the wide bays and had a distant view of a sea lion on one of the smaller outlying islands.

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The weather while I was there was probably the most changeable of anywhere I stayed, with bright sunny bright blue skies, dark menacing clouds, strong winds, a hail storm and snow showers passing through, all in less than 48hrs.

Like most of the islands, Pebble has a soul all of its own, which is now made most vivid in my memory by the sunset on my first evening. I wandered down to the jetties near to the settlement and walked amongst the old farm buildings. As I moved out onto the beach, a flock of gulls rose into the blustery air against a backdrop of dark brooding clouds broken by the bright light of the setting sun. Out in the distance were many small islands with the mass of hills on the West Falkland mainland standing behind. The wind rushing past couldn’t drown out the angry cries of the birds as they called alarm at the presence of stranger amongst them. The breeze brought rattles, creaks and groans from the resisting buildings while the slowly setting sun picked out the details in the wood and metal walls, roofs and doors. A remoteness seemed to come over me – the emptiness of the view out to the far off islands and hills, the isolation of the once bustling but now quiet settlement and the wildness of the weather and the calls of the gulls – truly spectacular!

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With all this to offer, Pebble has to be on my list for a return trip down south.

(My stay on Pebble Island was made all the more special by the people – Riki, Brad, Cat, Leigh and Walter. Pebble Island Lodge is a great place to stay with comfortable accommodation and lovely food! I particularly have to thank Brad for a great day-long tour of the west of the island – my TripAdvisor write-up can be found here)

British public transport drivers’ new uniform…

If the Argies must have signs on all their public transport claiming that the Falklands are Argentinian, this should be the new national uniform of all British bus and train drivers (for one day at least)… IMG_5030 …and on a related matter, if the Argentinians are going to be childish, why are we allowing their national football team to play two friendlies in England?

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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Falkland Islands – Visiting the Battlefields

The Falklands War is the primary reason why I have wanted to visit the Islands for so long. In my mid-teens, a TV program to mark the tenth anniversary of the war sparked an interest in me that has lasted ever since. Whilst my interests have expanded and my visit also served my interests in wildlife, landscapes and photography, learning more about events in 1982 were a priority.

I had three tours around some of the battlefields and other sites while in the Falklands. What instantly struck me was how fresh the signs of war still are, even 32 years later. The positions constructed by troops I saw could have been created just a few years ago and the wreckage of the shot down Argentine Dagger aircraft on Pebble Island (the pilot of which survived) looks barely touched by the three decades of Falklands weather.

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The battlefields are still strewn with the debris and detritus of war, with some large items remaining including some weapons (e.g. the recoilless rifle on Mount Longdon and all now well beyond use), while many smaller items lie all around and hidden in the ground including blankets, boots, personal kit and spent, and unspent, ammunition. Of course there are also the much larger remnants of the war which cannot be seen, those below the surface of the surrounding sea. Six British ships from the war lie in the waters surrounding the islands and seeing the buoy marking the final resting place of HMS Antelope, in San Carlos Water, really moved me – lying in such dark, cold, rough and wind blown waters, so far from home.

The Falklands are perhaps infamous for having uncleared minefields spread around the islands. Yes, they are there; I saw them around Goose Green and in the mountains close to Stanley and on the beaches around the capital. However, there are vast swathes of the islands, the majority in fact, left untouched by the war.

I was struck by the beauty of the cemeteries and monuments and their surroundings. Perhaps it was the good weather and I’m sure they will look and feel very different in the midst of a winter storm, but they are all in settings that give beautiful backdrops and fitting stages for those who gave all for the freedom of the islanders to decide their own future.

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At every cemetery or monument I visited, I made a point of reading every name, Argentine or British. Whilst it is easy to look for the most famous or most decorated names amongst those listed, for me it is important to notice all of them no matter what service, what rank or what age. Unfortunately, I didn’t get time to visit the one main Argentine cemetery, which is near to Darwin, but I did spend a short time at the small memorial on Pebble Island which marks the spot where a shot down Argentine Learjet crashed.

By chance rather than design, I visited the battlefields of Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet on Remembrance Sunday, and I marked the two-minute silence at the memorial on Longdon. After reading so much about the battle for Longdon, it was slightly unreal to spend time there; something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. Having seen pictures and maps of the place and the battle, it was very familiar but seeing the signs of war still very much in evidence was both surprising and poignant.

Of the land battles in 1982, I have read most about those fought by the Parachute Regiment and I have read comparatively little about the battles fought by the Royal Marines including that for Mount Harriet. Harriet seems even more of an impenetrable fortress than Longdon and I found it almost unbelievable that there were, thankfully, comparatively few British losses in taking the mountain (one soldier was killed by artillery fire on the approach to the battle while a second was shot when trying to take the surrender of some Argentines when one soldier changed his mind).

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I found that there remain some strong feelings amongst the islanders towards the nation only 250 miles to the west. Some of these feelings are clearly lasting from memories of the actions over 30 years ago now, while some relate more to the current and the difficulties that the islanders have in living so close to a still hostile neighbour and the actions being taken by the Argentine government to isolate the Islands.

The military are still very much in evidence now, not least to visitors arriving at Mount Pleasant Airbase, using the Air Bridge between the Islands and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. In my travels I frequently saw movements by helicopter, was flown over by two RAF Typhoons and a Hercules and even had my own ‘HMS’ moored offshore for the night when at Bleaker Island. It is clear that the islanders are very grateful to the military, not only for their actions and sacrifice in 1982, but also to the ongoing security they provide.

However, not all the locals seem happy to see the military. Gentoo penguins really don’t like helicopters and go running off in a mad panic each time one comes close. This seems particularly odd when they see them very frequently, but they do trudge back to where they started as soon as the big noisy thing goes away – only to run off again when the next one comes (they must have the memories not much greater than their main foodstuff!).

I have cared about the plight of the islands for a long time, even though I have no strong connections with them. It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to me that for a moment during my visit, while flying over the vast, empty areas of West Falkland, I did question whether they are worth protecting and, if necessary, fighting for again. However, this was a very short-lived moment of questioning.

For me the most important factor is the presence of the Islanders themselves. They own the islands, their home, just as much as I own the land (albeit very small) under my home. The Islanders are as British as I am and the vast majority have British roots going back many generations (just as I do) and have, in fact, more shared history with mainland UK than many people living here now. To me, the Islands may be far away, at the end of a long line of communication, but they are as British as any group of Islands within the British Isles and deserve to be protected, and have the right to be, from any hostile action (whether military, economic or diplomatic) from their near neighbour and its supporters.

Having been to the battlefields and talked to islanders, this visit has very much renewed my interest in what happened in 1982. However, more than that, my support for the right of the Islands to remain a Crown Dependency has also increased and I need to give some thought to how I can do more to show that support (in whatever small way I can).

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(I would like to thank Tony Smith for guiding me around the Mount Longdon and Mount Harriet battlefields – he is an excellent guide with an incredible knowledge of the battles and insight into what actually happened in 1982. He can speak not only from first hand experience from an islander’s point of view but has also spoken to many veterans, both junior and senior and from both sides. He clearly has a passion for sharing knowledge of the war and he does so both enthusiastically and with great sensitivity).

Falkland Islands – The First Week

Blogging is actually even harder than I thought it would be in the Falklands. I knew internet connection would be poor but it’s actually the amount of time I have (or don’t have to be precise) which is hindering my blogging. I would love to have put up a post every day but each one is so full and I go to bed so tired that I just don’t have the time or reserves of energy. Anyway, I’ve decided to blog properly when I get home but thought I would provide a couple (or so) of updates before I have to leave the islands.

Since arriving last Tuesday afternoon the days have been hectic and I have so far stayed in five different places; Darwin, Pebble Island, Carcass Island and Saunders Island. I’m now on Bleaker Island to the south east of the archipelago. Travelling has been interesting and exciting, with flights between places being on small, eight-seater Britton-Norman Islanders – the workhorse of the Falkland Island Government Air Service. These little planes give a very different perspective on the islands including just how big and rugged they are. I’ve also had a boat trip out to West Point Island which was very rough on the way out, making a few of the passengers just a little ill (not me of course!), but less so on the way back with the wind behind us and the waves actually overtaking the boat. We were joined and entertained by a couple of dolphins riding the bow wave.IMG_0598Each place I’ve stayed has provided something different, from the battlefields at Darwin and the memorials, war wreckage and old buildings at Pebble Island to the hill walking and elephant seals at Carcass Island and seabird cliffs, large sandy beaches and wind-formed rocky mountain tops of Saunders Island.

At each place, the wildlife has been spectacular but, so far, it is the outlying islands that have proven to be true natural havens with birdlife in abundance.  The mammals aren’t too bad either, with elephant seals, sea lions and Commerson’s dolphins all seen so far – and there may even be killer whales before I go home!

The weather so far has been well above expectations and certainly variable. With the exception of the last couple of days, the weather has been changeable in the extreme. On Carcass Island, I was taking shots of an almost tropical-like paradise one minute with snow coming down the next. On the same day, I was treated to near blizzard conditions but within a short period the sun came out burned it all off. Even the wind hasn’t been constantly strong and I’ve even experienced cloudless skies, which appear to be very rare in these parts.

The people I’ve met have made a real difference to my trip and everyone has a story to tell or an interest in asking about others. It’s certainly a small community down here with everyone knowing everyone else but there are also many people from overseas and I have already met Americans, Australians, Germans and Chileans.

That’s all for now!

The Falkland Islands: The Journey South

Well, that was a journey and a half!

Setting off from home on Sunday afternoon, I made my way down to RAF Brize Norton, getting stuck on the M6, as usual, but then after the M5 leg I drove through the beautiful autumn colours of the Cotswolds. My journey down was filled with paranoia about each step on the way to the Falklands and the many opportunities to be turned away at each step. On arrival at the air base I had to pass through the main gate security before I could access the terminal. This was the first nervous moment – would they let this usually very suspicious-looking person onto the site? It was first hurdle cleared (phew)!

On the base, I drove as slowly as possible, trying to look normal again but made it to the terminal okay and then waited for check-in to open – not as long as I was originally told. Would I pass this second hurdle? Yes, and they didn’t even check the weight of my carry-on luggage. I then had to drop off my car at the long stay car park and make it back to the terminal – no problems again. Then started the long wait until the flight; five hours in one of the most boring terminals in the world.

The long wait seemed to go much quicker than expected and eventually we were called through security and passport control – with the nowadays unusual ability to take a big bottle of water through. With military VIPs called through first, the rest of us were then boarded by row number and we walked out into the dark of the apron and onto one of the RAF’s new tanker aircraft – which also has over 200 seats. Just after 11:00pm, we were launched into the night, not to land until we had crossed the equator.

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After skirting the west coast of Africa, watching the stars above the Atlantic and seeing the sun rise (unfortunately I had a window seat on the wrong side) we landed on the volcanic island of Ascension, rumbling down the runway past dark hills of black and red. The island was surprisingly cool for this time of year, only 21 degrees at 8:00am. We had two hours to wait in ‘the cage’ – the fenced-in and mostly open air part of the terminal ‘air side’ of security. With a bit of moisture in the briskly blown air, most were probably keen for the two hours to move quickly, although a chance to stand after hours on the plane were very welcome.

An announcement was made that the weather over Mount Pleasant runway in the Falklands was causing dangerous ‘rotor’ winds and that it was too risky to land, so we were delayed by an hour. Eventually, we were called to board the plane, only to be told, once we had nicely settled in, that there would be a twenty-four hour delay at Ascension and we all had to get off again.

We trooped back to the cage and waited instruction – to be honest, they were very organised and in only about half an hour we were given room allocations in the transit camp accommodation and bussed across to the far side of the island. Travellers’ Hill is the main living area for the British military personnel on the island and there are rows of four-bed rooms set aside for just this eventuality. I was roomed with two soldiers and another civie. One of the soldiers wandered off with his unit, while the other dozed for most of the rest of the day, the other civie went to see some local colleagues, while I relaxed on the ‘veranda’ keeping out of the strong mid-Atlantic sun. I would have gone for a walk and seen how far I could get up the nearby tallest hill on the island – Green Mountain – but as this was ‘only’ a 24hr delay, our hold luggage was left on the plane and I wasn’t going to walk up there in the heat in the only clothes I had – pity really.

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After two meals in the Combined Mess and a spot of essential shopping, three of us went to the Naafi bar for the evening. With a nice pint of John’s Smiths costing £1.30 a pint, it seemed rude not to take full advantage, however, I regretted that somewhat when the alarm woke us all at 3:45am. Climbing onto the coach 15 minutes later, travelling back to the airbase and waiting in the cool morning air did wonders and by the time we took off at 7:35am I was feeling a little bit more human again.

There wasn’t an awful lot to see out of the window for the next eight hours but shortly before landing, we spotted land; the land I’d been wanting to see for over 20 years. We flew over the coast of East Falkland, passed Stanley and over the mountains of its western approaches. As we came into the airbase, you could sense the apprehension in the plane as we had been warned that the landing would be rough. In the end, either the pilot was very good or the conditions weren’t that bad.

As we stepped off the plane, the wind was significant but the most striking thing was the clear, bright blue sky and intense early afternoon sun. After queuing for immigration and customs (getting a Falklands stamp in my passport), I grabbed my luggage, saying goodbye to friends I’d made on the extended journey and made my way outside to start the next stage of my trip.

Being on the ground of these south Atlantic islands for the first time, seemed unreal, even more so in the strong glare of the late spring sun. The 51 hours it had taken to get from my home to touching down at Mount Pleasant Airbase were certainly the most eventful of my travels to date and will stick in my memory for a long time – maybe I should plan to take my next holiday in Ascension!

Nearly on my way…

Well, it’s nearly time to start out on a trip I have been dreaming of making for over 20 years.  I’m suffering from a mixture emotions – paranoia (that something will stop me from getting there), excitement (obviously) and slight dread (of spending 20 hours on a plane – I usually find short haul mind-numbingly boring!).

So, after a night and the best part of a day on a plane, stopping at Ascension Island and crossing the Equator for the first time in my life, I’ll be landing at Mount Pleasant air base. For the following 15 nights I’ll be spending time in Darwin settlement, Pebble Island, Carcass Island, Saunders Island, Bleaker Island, Sea Lion Island, before returning to the sprawling and hectic metropolis that is Port Stanley.

There will be a bit of military history, plenty of wildlife and, as I will be wandering around on my own for a bit, plenty of daft mumbling.