December Island Hopping – Part II

Well behind now that it’s sunny February, but I’m ploughing on with the blog nonetheless! We’ve not touched the blog in January really as my family were here (more on that story later) and term has begun again so free time is at a premium once more.  Still, I’m excited to talk about our other big December event. No, not Christmas! Far more exciting than that! Following our Battle Day weekend trip to the wonderful Carcass (recently featured in the Daily Mail, but don’t let that put you off), we were very excited and hopeful of a trip that was two years in the making. Since arriving in the Falklands, I’d been keen to make it to the far Western land mass known as New Island (the Trust’s website is well worth a visit). I had a number of reasons for this so it seems an opportune time for a list:

  1. New Island was meant to be one of the most beautiful of all of the Falkland islands
  2. New Island was once home to the only whaling station to have ever been established on the Falklands themselves:
  3. New Island is run by a Conservation Trust and has an interesting access arrangement, so has very few visitors. We struggled to find many people who had been (and let’s face it, people always want what they can’t have)
  4. New Island hosts the islands’ only accessible colony of Southern fur seals
  5. New Island is the largest thin-billed prion colony in the World
  6. Lastly, and most importantly for me, New Island was the island that played host to the truly fascinating story of Captain Charles H. Barnard’s isolation. If you love historical non-fiction that’s too bizarre to be true you’d do worse than reading The Wreck of the Isabella. In short, after postponing his American sealing mission to rescue the British survivors of the wrecked ship Isabella, Barnard’s ship was taken from him by his wards after revealing that Britain and America had declared war while they were at sea. He was left for roughly 18 months to survive in the then-uninhabited Falklands with his dog and a handful of others in his crew (who then also left him alone for a stint). Barnard wrote his memoirs in 1829, still unaware of the full story of why he was marooned, but it makes for an amazing tale and one whose backdrop we were very keen to see.

The journey to New Island is a  story in itself.

The usual grass airstrips that are used by FIGAS to land on the outer islands are usually not a problem, but New Island is so rugged that their airstrip is not only extremely short but only faces one direction and can only take the weight of two passengers. As a result, you can only fly out there on North-Westerly wind and a glance at the map will show you that it’s quite far to get there to not be able to land (about two hours’ flight, in fact). Heading out, the wind wasn’t with us so we were 24 hours late getting onto the island. This also meant we were combined with another couple of people trying to get onto the island (a researcher and one of the FITV crew). This meant we needed to be dropped on the nearest island (Weddell, which was nice as we hadn’t been there yet). We finally heard over the radio that we were going to be able to land and we were excited to finally get onto the island, even if we were hesitant about the plane stopping before the end of the airstrip:

On the drive to the settlement, we got a good taste of what New Island was all about as we stumbled on the eerie remains of the whaling station as well as a clear sign that New Island’s murderous past is behind it:

As New Island isn’t technically a tourist island, the accommodation available was self-catering in an A-frame which was cosy and had everything we needed, including a killer view of the Protector:

Right next to the A-frames you can see the wreck of the Protector and then, just beyond, the Museum. After some fairly questionable historical research, the Museum is said to be built on the remains of the hut built by Captain Barnard himself. I’m not sure I believe that, but the presence of a ship’s mast-turned-flagpole was a funky reminder of the island’s sailing history as a sealing/whaling base.

Shortly beyond the Museum, it’s only a 5-10 minute walk to the Settlement Rookery. This is where Barnard collected eggs to survive on: Mollymawks (the old name for black-browed albatross), Rockhopper penguins and King Cormorants. We paid quite a few visits to the Rookery, it’s not a place to get too bored of at the breeding time of year:

As well as walking to the Rookery, we spent quite a few hours each day walking generally, just enjoying the stunning scenery that the battered West coast had to offer:

After a couple of nights in the settlement, we’d  been told we had the option to spend a night at the North End of the island, in a basic but adequate hut right in the middle of the gentoo’s commuting route. The drive up was an interesting one, and the shack proved even more interesting as the old meat locker on the outside had now become home to a breeding pair of striated caracaras. The North end provided plenty of opportunity to walk the other coast, checking out the beaches and other colonies around. We’d hoped to see the infamous sealion that hunted penguins on the beach there, but we only found evidence of it. It did, however, give us a stunning sunset before we settled down to fall asleep to the thousands of gentoos calling to each other

The North end of the island threw up a rare treat in the form of a pure white skua, which I’ve never even heard of before! This would have been a big deal but the white skua wasn’t the only genetic oddity (if that isn’t too harsh a term) to make itself known to us. We LOVED the amazing  spotted Rockhopper that turned up at the Rookery too!

These completely unusual and rare creatures almost took away from the fact that we were able to stop off on the way back to the settlement and take another walk. This time we followed the odd noises echoing from the caves on the coast to find the Southern fur seals in their colony. The adults were pungent, quite loud and not stunning to look at but the pups that were emerging were super-cute:

As you can see, we were extremely lucky to see so much of New Island by day .If it wasn’t for our limited internet, we’d probably have uploaded more photos but hopefully these have got across some of the highlights. As if that wasn’t all, the daylight only gave way to more surprises. I mentioned earlier that New Island is the largest thin-billed prion colony in the World. This was a major issue trying to walk anywhere as they burrow to create minefield-esque difficulties in walking. At night, however, the scientist studying them took us out to see the skies filled with them and help with checking the rings he was tracking. These stunning little birds filled the night sky and made us feel so much worse when we saw the caracaras digging them up for food the next day as we knew from close up how pretty they were:

One final oddity thrown up by the island was seeing a lonely Rockhopper appear among the gentoos coming in. This lost little guy seemed intent on following the gentoos in as per his genetic programming, I guess. The only thing was, he couldn’t keep up so hopped his way up to their colony and spent the night looking out of place. It made us giggle anyway.DSC_0765Who knows if or when we’ll get a chance to go back, but at least we’ve been now!

Our adventure was rounded off nicely when we had to get back to town to host people at our house for Christmas dinner. We’d invited many people over, but the weather had other ideas – we were stuck on New Island for two extra nights waiting for a flight out. Luckily, we were more than OK with that and we borrowed the wardens’ phone to get our friends to do our shopping. It all worked out so sadly we got to leave New Island on Christmas Eve.

I don’t know what Barnard was complaining about: we loved being marooned on New Island.