“West is best”, they said

Believe it or not there is a small book available in the gift shops with the title ‘Place names of the Falkland Islands’. So far I’ve managed to resist purchasing a copy but one of the resounding patterns that you notice flicking through it is that it doesn’t take too much imagination to name places here (Sea Lion Island, Whale Point, Goose Green to name but a few). We live on the largest of the Falkland islands (East Falkland, also creatively named). The second largest island is West Falkland (see what they did there?), across the stretch of water that gives these islands their name; Falkland Sound. Since arriving we’ve constantly heard the phrase ‘West is best’ (mostly from people who grew up on the West but never mind that) so a short-notice trip to the West was on the cards as our last hoorah for the Summer/Christmas holidays.

The West is home to just under 100 permanent residents across an area about half the size of Northern Ireland (if you’re wondering how that works, the farm we were staying at was some 40,000 acres and had just one very nice man looking after the 6-8000 sheep that called it home) and is accessed either by the Islander flight (see previous posts) or the Concordia, a once-a-day ferry that you can reverse your car onto and relax with a free cup of tea. Boiler suits  are highly commended aboard and it’s cold out on the Sound! We’ve been eager to see some whales since arriving and were told that the ferry regularly spots them but alas, we missed the whale-blows that the crew spotted. Still, our greeting at Port Howard (the main settlement and port) left us greeted by not a single human being but dolphins in their dozens keenly awaiting the ferry’s arrival for some play and food. (Remember to click the photos for captions).

HISTORY WARNING: Attacking Argentine fighter planes would often approach low over West Falkland to hit targets on East Falkland and the British landing operations (at San Carlos in particular) without too much risk of being intercepted or hit by anti-aircraft fire from Royal Navy ships. Some were intercepted, however, including by British fighter planes engaging their Argentine counterparts in classic dogfights – but using modern jets! The British had their aircraft-carrier-based Harriers, and the Argentines sent their jets from the mainland, for example A-4 Skyhawks (US-built ground-attack jets) and Daggers (an Israeli derivative of the French-designed supersonic Mirage), bought second-hand from Israel only a couple of years before the Falklands War.

The West being less visited than the East, the remnants of ’82 are far more untouched, as evidenced by this Skyhawk remains:


Our home for the weekend was Port Edgar, a large a scenic farm on the Sound, with stunning coastline, a self-catering cottage and a welcoming host in the form of Tex. Port Edgar provided us with everything we could possibly want for the weekend away – wildlife, off-roading coastal trails, stunning scenery and light, clear night skies, fishing for my first ever fish (one of several mullets, caught not 30 steps from the door of our cottage and feeding us well for two days) and gained knowledge on how to catch and fillet fish from a great host.

We also had a day trip to Port Stephens, the very South-western tip of West Falkland. Here we found more King penguins amongst the many gentoos, sea lions following us along our coastal walk and, once again, the legendary Falklands hospitality we have come to love. The remoteness of the West seems to encourage it; not every fuel station will bake a cake for your expected stop in on the return journey!

Maybe West IS best.

A not so Bleaker time – Part II

The odd second trip explained:

With the Falklands being so deep into the South Atlantic and the links to the UK science scene being historically strong, Stanley is home to a number of interesting organisations. Next door to the offices and staging post for the British Antarctic Survey lies the office for SAERI, the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute. We’d had a chance meeting with one of the BAS employees and she had forwarded Han’s details to SAERI as we had made it clear we have some time on our hands.This turned out to be a good move!

Our visit to Bleaker Island was our first foray onto one of the other inhabited islands around these parts but no sooner had we arrived than an email arrived asking Han (and I) if we’d be free to help on a research project. As it turned out, Megan from SAERI had fixed some satellite  trackers to some gentoos, rockhoppers and magellanic penguins at various sites around the Falklands and needed some help collecting them back in to assess possible environmental impacts of the oil industry operating here. It just so happened that this particular trip was to the very island we were on and so would be returning the very day after we left to help catch penguins!

Very early starts and very late nights were to be spent checking the magellanic penguin burrows, watching the Rockhoppers launch out of the surf and ascend the cliffs and checking the gentoo colonies for penguins wearing last year’s GPS trackers. The long hours were worth it as we got shown how to handle and catch the penguins and learnt all about their habits. It’s another oddity of life here that you absorb information about various things that you never expected to. The longer we’re here, the more I can tell you about the breeding, feeding and general habits of various penguins, as well as an odd amount about sheep farming and other beasties of the animal kingdom.

Anyway, the penguin hunting was mostly successful so we got about half of her trackers back. Han’s major aim for her time here was to pick up a penguin, so I’m hoping she doesn’t just go home now as there were several caught and ticked off the list:

For many reasons, the Rockhoppers are my favourite so this was a real privilege. The magellanics are less popular in our household now having drawn blood through two layers of gloves on Han’s hand (they have hooked beaks unlike the other penguins – see, odd amounts of penguin knowledge). Two days after landing back from our second trip to Bleaker, we’d also opted for a last-minute trip to ‘the West’, but that’s a story for another day.

Not so Bleaker photos, Part I

There is something about this place that lends itself well to photos so we take many, many photos. We have to whittle our comprehensive collection down but below are some of the stages of our (first) trip to Bleaker:

The journey in on the Islander and the settlement::

Bleaker is home to a HUGE colony of Imperial Cormorants:

Sea lions are usually found with a male and his ‘harem’, the colony at Bleaker is no exception but other males will try to kidnap females to breed with them:

Bleaker has all 5 penguins but we were most captivated by the Rockhoppers’ seemingly death-defying emergence from the choppy waters and their climb to the surface, as well as the rare Macaroni with its distinctive eyebrow and the gentoos on their beach:

The main predators for some of the penguins are the Caracaras, also known as Johnny Rooks. These guys are incredibly intelligent, to the point that friends have seen them unzip bags and rifle through as well as steal camera lenses. These guys are very, very cheeky and weren’t afraid of us at all. Quite rightly so.

Bleaker gave us a great trip with some good friends and some memorable events, and little did we know that more was to come.

A not so Bleaker time – Part I

The Falkland Islands number some 748 different  remote islands, of which perhaps a dozen are occupied by people. Some of these are private single abodes, difficult to visit and home to what I can only assume are fascinating personalities. Others are tourist destinations, offering self-catering or full-board ‘lodge’ housing to those wanting to get away from the proportionally cosmopolitan life in Stanley. Some of these names are well-known – Pebble Island for the SAS raid in 1982, Sea Lion Island often appears on BBC wildlife programs for the unique Orca whale visits that go on there. They vary in price and can work out extremely expensive for a weekend away but we splashed out on a visit to Bleaker Island for 2 nights, which then turned into two trips back to back for reasons that I’ll cover in Part II. The Islands are only visited by one boat each month so in order to visit you need to make use of FIGAS: the Falkland Islands Government Air Service. FIGAS run what are essentially charter flights in small planes for a fixed fee for those living in or visiting different settlements, whether they are on East or West Falkland (the two main Islands) or the outer Islands. For £67 each way, you can ring up the airport with a day and rough time that you’d like a flight and where to and they’ll do their best to get one booked for you and flying in all kinds of unlikely weather, as we found out. It can be just you and the pilot, or you can be making stops elsewhere to pick up/drop off other people or packages. Never having flown in a small plane before, it’s amazing how quickly this became normal as you turn up, weigh in and hop on board for the 30 minute flight to Bleaker, landing on grass airstrips with surprising smoothness. A little on the bouncy side, but the low-level aerial view is spectacular.

Flying in and out, for some reason, reminds me of the start of Father Ted with green fields, rugged coastline and sheer lack of houses as you drop closer to the ground. The plane’s departure as you wave it off reminds you that you are isolated on this Island with no hope of getting away unless the weather is clear enough for the ‘Islander’ planes to come and collect you again (it is simply a fact of life here that some people get stuck on their trips for a few days longer and few people ever mind that!). Still, that’s why you go so it’s really quite a nice feeling.

The Islands are so often about wildlife encounters and Bleaker is no exception. Bleaker is currently home to all 5 species of penguin found here, including our first spotting of their rogue but rare Macaroni sporting their distinctive ginger monobrow, a sea lion colony of c.50 sea lions, the odd juvenile elephant seal, large colonies of Rockhoppers and Gentoo penguins, Peale’s dolphins, and for the bird fans Caracaras/johnny rooks who are unbelievably intelligent and mischievous as well as breeding colonies of skuas, imperial cormorants and Southern Giant Petrels to name a few. We have many pictures, from the journey, the encounters with the different wildlife and the stunning light for photos here so we’ll upload these as soon as possible with a short summary for each topic.

Bleaker is the cheapest of the full-board island lodges and a weekend away at the more expensive can cost you around £500 each including flights so it’s not something we’ll be doing too often, but there are others high on the hit-list. We’re also hoping to get the ferry to West Falkland soon and that should prove a little more economical for a trip away.

Elephant Beachcombing


Just another day of Falklands driving…

We had a small set-back with the car after our trips to Volunteer Point and Bertha’s Breach but she’s now back up and running so we decided to celebrate with a trip up ‘the North Camp Road’ to a local beauty spot called Elephant Beach Farm.

Here, amongst the endless diddle-dee berry bushes, the Gentoo penguins with their now quite large chicks and the young sea lion sunbathing, we walked and drove off-road along the coastline and, as with many places here, found all kinds of things around. It’s a geographical and historical quirk of the Falklands that the coastline is abundant with shipwrecks. Some of these, like the Jhelum, the Lady Liz and the Bertha, are well-known and their debris/wrecks can be easily identified but other parts of the coastline hold many very old, weathered and clearly nautical pieces of driftwood that I find raise a lot of questions; what ship did this piece come from? When was it made? Where was it going? What was it carrying? What was the fate of those on board? Were any rescued? With so many shipwrecks and pieces of drift wood around, it’s scary to think what each one would have been through to find itself here from the early days of exploration and international travel.

There are many stories of people having been wrecked here, some when the Falklands was populated and others not so fortunate (I HIGHLY recommend reading The Wreck of the Isabella for an unbelievably true story of people shipwrecked here in 1811/12 and their struggles to stay alive and get rescued). The excellent Stanley Museum displays and even sells some of the artefacts and Han was kind enough to buy me a glass ink bottle (still corked and with ink in!) that was recovered from the 1895 wreck of the John R Kelly. A pretty cool keepsake if ever I owned one.


Garden ornaments aplenty

Some of this shipwreck debris makes for great garden decorations, souvenirs and windowsill decor as we see around the Islands often. One favourite Falklands garden ornament is the whale bones that also litter the coastline here and Elephant Beach Farm also teems with many of those, though it is illegal to attempt to remove them from the Islands (I guess in some form of anti-whaling law side-effect) so please don’t ask us for a set.

Old wooden wrecks are not the only historical reminders here, of course, and the North Camp road plays host to what I believe is the remnants of a burnt out Argentine Chinook from a Harrier raid advised by the SAS in 1982.

I believe two Puma helicopter wrecks are also nearby but I have yet to locate them. For somewhere with no native population and with a current population that has only been here since about 1833 there is a surprising amount of history here, which is nice for me!