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 its own weather. The brisk wind blowing in off the ocean was lifted as it hit the land and rose up the steep mountainside. As 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 – 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)