Where penguins outnumber people
The minefields barely bother the locals. Covering less than 0.2 per cent of the Falklands, they are all signed and fenced off, and there has never been a civilian casualty. Many say they would rather any money was spent clearing landmines in more vulnerable countries. Yorke Bay is one of the closest suspected minefields to Stanley. While visitors watch from behind a cordon, light-footed gentoo penguins enjoy free rein of this fabulous sweep of pale sand and accidental nature reserve.
Further north, a drive past outcrops with names familiar from the 1982 conflict – Mount Harriet, Tumbledown – and then an hour across open moorland leads to Volunteer Beach. Unlike Yorke Bay, this one is shared by both penguins and humans. As I approach the dunes, perspective tricks my mind, and the backlit figures of both species appear to merge in the midday sun.
Most of the thousand-odd king penguins huddle in a colony just inland from the dunes. They are certainly the best-dressed penguins, and the smaller Magellanic penguins that walk past resemble gatecrashers at a black-tie cocktail party. The king penguin’s image of regal detachment is spoiled by its trumpeting call, which sounds like someone stepping on a squeaky toy. On closer inspection, tempers are fraying at the party as the guests invade each other’s personal space. King penguin society is kept in line with a few well-placed wing slaps and beak jabs, and some in-your-face trumpeting.
The biggest concentration of wildlife on the islands, however, is on Sea Lion Island, nine miles off the shore of East Falkland. The sea lions here are not the sleek, barking creatures of Hollywood, trained to balance beach balls on their nose. The roar of the adult males and the mane that grows around their huge heads are respectably lion-like. Looking down from the cliffs on the southern side of the island, the inequalities of the animal world soon become apparent. One beachmaster bull – the alpha male of the species – sits among his harem, while another, slightly smaller male, lies alone a dozen yards away, resting his chin on a slab of rock with the look of a scolded dog.
At dawn, I walk the short distance from the lodge to the beach at Elephant Corner. Elephant seals are even larger than sea lions. Two or three people could lie end-to-end next to the largest bulls, if they were feeling reckless. They look almost prehistoric, like the first draft of a seal. They lie snorting, harrumphing, scratching their bellies with their flippers and dusting themselves with sand. Two bulls slam their necks against each other in the rolling surf for more than an hour while the fins of killer whales rise out of the water beyond.
If you ask nicely, your pilot may dip the wings of his plane to give you a better view of any whales he can spot. This is one of the small joys of island-hopping on one of the five bright-red passenger planes run by FIGAS – the Falkland Islands Government Air Service. It feels more like a local bus route, as passengers hop on and off along the way to outlying islands and remote camp settlements.
Port Stephens is one of the larger farms on West Falkland, and an example of an enduring but threatened way of life. Coming in to land, the pilot radios ahead to Ann and Peter Robertson to bring the Land Rover with the fire-fighting equipment – just in case – and check that none of their 11,000 sheep has strayed onto the grass airstrip. Peter’s family came here in 1908 when wool was the only significant business on the islands, and a farm like Port Stephens could support a flock of sheep 70,000-strong.