The rockhopper penguins battling to raise their chicks on the rugged Argentinian island of los Estados typifies the challenges of life in Patagonia’s far south. But attempting to capture this, one of nature's great events, on camera is also filled with trials and tribulations for the film crew, writes Evie Wright

Lying roughly 20 miles (29 kilometres) east of the southern tip of mainland Argentina, the island of los Estados is rightly infamous in nautical history. Largely composed of precipitous peaks looming like cathedral spires from the sea, this is the last gasp of the Andes mountains before the sea consumes them.

In the hey-day of Cape Horn sailing during the late 1800s, ten ships a year were wrecked, on average, whilst trying to negotiate a passage round the island. The Straits of Le Maire, the narrow channel separating Estados from the mainland, is one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.

It’s a bottleneck between the Atlantic and the Great Southern Ocean. A constant battle between strong currents and prevailing winds can sometimes create fearsome waves that stand up to 66 feet (20 metres) tall.

Despite all this, there is nothing that typifies the challenges of life in Patagonia’s far south better than the story of the rockhopper penguins, battling to raise their chicks on this rugged island, and that was why I was so determined to get there.

From the off it was challenging. Although Estados was once populated by indigenous Yaghan people, the arrival of Europeans soon rang their death knell. While the Yaghan eked out a living fishing from bark canoes round the perilous coastline.

Since their demise the island has remained unpopulated, save for a small naval base on the northern shore, and for a spell, fittingly, it was used as a prison. On the eastern tip there is a lighthouse – Faro de San Juan del Salvamento – the real inspiration for Jules Vernes’ novel Lighthouse at the End of the World.

With an emergency evacuation taking at least 48 hours, and very likely much more, injury or illness was a big worry

Estados is now a protected provincial reserve under Argentinian law, and the authorities are rightly cautious about who they allow to access the island. But after months of careful negotiation, in mid-December 2014 I was finally ready to set sail, leaving Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, with cameraman, Paul Stewart, and Anthony Pyper, our researcher.

Everything had to be planned meticulously in advance. If the cameras broke down, there was no way we’d be able to ship in a replacement. Given that the weather is infamously unpredictable, we had to ensure we had enough food rations with plenty to spare if our departure from the island got delayed for any reason.

We had a lot of useful, local advice from the team at CADIC (Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas) who have been researching the seabird colonies on the island for over 20 years, but nevertheless, despite months of planning, it was still a bit of a leap into the unknown.

We arrived on the island, running our supplies to shore. Yet it was only as Henk Boersma, the skipper of our boat, sailed away into the wild currents of the Straits of Le Maire that the reality of the gargantuan task ahead began to dawn on us.

Being one of the few people that have ever been fortunate enough to spend time on this awe-inspiring island was a real privilege 

The camera equipment is heavy enough, but we had to be completely self-reliant. This meant not only having 500 packs of freeze-dried food, but 80 litres of fuel for the generator; camping equipment to make sure we were warm enough and protected from the elements; sufficient gas bottles to make sure we could heat the bog water required to rehydrate our freeze-dried diet and a mammoth amount of first aid equipment.

With an emergency evacuation taking at least 48 hours, and very likely much more, injury or illness was a big worry.

As we began the task of hefting the kit up to the top of the cliffs where the rockhoppers were nesting, it became apparent that the terrain we had to negotiate was pretty horrific. A steep uphill climb of 2 hours through knee-deep mud laden with treacherous tree roots, deceptive looking branches to help steady yourself that mostly snapped off in your hand, meant the risk of serious injury was real.

Then there was the weather. On Estados the prevailing winds come from the south-west, i.e. straight from the Antarctic. This brings in unpredictable weather at alarming speeds, but startling though the hailstorms, blizzards and gale force winds were, the elements that really began to get tiring were the constant cold and damp. When you’re camping in such conditions, there’s no real way of getting warm.

But despite all this, the challenge of working on los Estados is one of the most rewarding and life-affirming experiences I’ve ever had. The uncompromising, unforgiving landscape is also stunningly beautiful in its own rugged way.

 

Being so isolated meant the team had to really gel and pull together – no choice! – and we had a great time. Enduring and experiencing the conditions ourselves gave us an insight into the harsh reality of what the rockhoppers go through to raise their chicks. Being one of the few people that have ever been fortunate enough to spend time on this awe-inspiring island was a real privilege.

Discover more about the series and catch up with previous episodes here: 'Patagonia: Earth’s Secret Paradise'.

The series concludes in the UK on BBC Two on Friday 9 October at 21:30 BST, and is repeated on Saturday 10 October at 16:00 in Scotland and at 19:30 elsewhere.