Falkland Islands ~ untamed landscapes where wildlife rules

King penguin colony
Brief History

The islands were first sighted in 1592 by English navigator John Davis on his ship the “Desire”. Early visitors to the islands were thought to be whalers, sealers, and penguin hunters from different parts of the world. In 1833 Britain claimed sovereignty. Stanley was named as the capital in 1845. Sheep farms were built around the islands which became the main economy. Currently, the island’s main source of income is through fishing, tourism, and agriculture. 

There have been many disputes between the United Kingdom and Argentina as to the ownership of the Falklands. In 1982 Argentine troops waged a very brutal war on the Falklands which lasted 74 days.  Argentine forces landed on the Falklands to stake a territorial claim.  British military fought back in what was a very intense war with many casualties. Ultimately Argentina surrendered to the British Forces.  Argentina believes it is a territory of Argentina due to inheriting it from Spain in the early 1800s. Britain believes it belongs to them due to the long-term sovereignty over the islands and the residents are mainly of British descent. The islands are self-governing, foreign affairs and defense matters are under the control of the British Government. The government of the Falkland Islands also governs the British overseas territory of South Georgia.

The Falklands are located approximately 480 km northeast of the southern tip of South America.  The archipelago has two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, and around 600 smaller islands.

Falklands map
Location of Falkland Islands

Its population is around 3354, the majority being of British descent. Approximately 2954 live in and around the capital, Stanley. The remainder of around 400 live scattered through the countryside and on some of the larger islands. 

Stanley is the only town in the Falklands. It is a very small town, with a hospital, two schools, two supermarkets, a few restaurants, souvenir shops, pubs, a swimming pool, and an 18-hole golf course.

Getting there

There are two ways to visit the Falkland Islands. One is by boat which usually is a part of an Antarctic cruise, or to fly with LATAM airlines which runs bi-weekly flights from Santiago via Punta Arenas direct to Mount Pleasant Airport on East Falkland. Visitors stay in accommodation or camping with a permit.  Mount Pleasant International Airport also serves as a Military Base Airport. It is about a 45-minute drive from Stanley.

Island travel

Paved roads are only found in the main parts of the larger East and West Falkland Islands. Once one gets 30 minutes drive from Stanley, the roads become unpaved dirt roads. A 4×4 vehicle is needed to get around the islands. Ferry services travel between East and West Falkland. To travel between the outer islands, one has to use the local airline FIGAS (Falkland Islands Government Air Service). There is a fleet of five Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander small planes providing unscheduled flights departing from Stanley Airport base.

FIGAS plane, Falklands
FIGAS plane
Accommodation

Options are very limited.  Stanley has one full-service hotel with 35 rooms. There are a few other smaller self-catering options in Stanley and on the outer islands.  Most of the are small, self-catering, and are booked up well in advance. There is also a camping option.

Food options are very basic.  Almost everything is flown in from the UK which is costly.  There are very few if any fresh fruit and vegetables available. Fruit and vegetables are not grown on the islands due to the very harsh weather conditions.

Climate

The weather has been described as “cold maritime”. Winter is cold, windy, and snowy, with an average temperature of 2 Celsius. Summer is also very cool, rainy, and windy, with an average temperature of 10 Celsius. Dressing in many layers, hats, scarves, waterproof clothing is a must.

Helpful hints

Currency: Falkland pound which is equivalent to the UK sterling. They also accept U$D. Credit cards are accepted. There is no free Wi-Fi on any of the islands and no mobile phone coverage unless one purchases a local sim card for $10 USD, which don’t last very long. Everything in the Falklands is expensive.

There are very strict guidelines for all the islands which include
  • No smoking
  • Taking care when walking as there are many nesting burrows deep in the ground. This due to the Magellanic penguins and other birds species nesting
  • Do not cross penguin highways if there are penguins on them
  • No plant or animal species to be brought to the islands
  • Maintain a distance of 6 metres from all wildlife at all times
Wildlife

The islands are bursting with wonders of nature and wildlife. Clean and unpolluted landscapes, beaches, and water. Wildlife is free to roam around as if they own the islands!  There are very strict rules about approaching wildlife. It is due to the strict control that wildlife is very used to tourists and do not seem to have any fear as long as one keeps the set distance. 

The Falklands are home to five species of penguins (Gentoo, southern rockhopper, king, Magellanic, and Macaroni). Large colonies of black-browed albatross, blue-eyed cormorants, seals, southern sea lions, southern elephant seals, southern giant petrels, flightless steamer ducks, and an array of other birdlife, and sheep can be seen on the islands. Oh, and I must not forget to mention the very friendly and welcoming local Falklanders!

While there are around 600 smaller islands, there are only a few that tourists can visit.  Some islands only have self-catering accommodation which is booked up well in advance. Access to these islands is by FIGAS or helicopter and organised as a day trip.

Besides East and West Falkland, the other main islands are Pebble Island, Jason Island, Bleaker Island, Saunders Island, Carcass Island, Sea Lion Island, and West Point Island which are all worth visiting.  It would be a good idea to check out these islands and their offerings when you plan your Falklands adventure.

On my 14-day Falkland Island adventure I visited the following islands.

East Falkland

King penguins are the second-largest penguin in the world after the emperor penguin.

King penguin colony, Volunteer Point
King penguin colony, Volunteer Point, East Falkland

There is a large colony at Volunteer Point on East Falkland. It is a 4 hour mostly bumpy 4×4 off-road drive one way from Stanley or hire a helicopter which takes around 20 mins one way. It is a full day trip, or you can book well in advance and stay at a local homestay.  You will also find Magellanic and gentoo penguins at this same location.  Definitely worth the trip. 

King penguin trio
Trio of king penguins
King penguin colony, Volunteer Point
King penguin colony, Volunteer Point, East Falkland
King penguins off to sea
King penguin colony, Volunteer Point, East Falkland
King penguins living side by side with sheep
Quite an unusual sight to see king penguins and sheep living together
Volunteer Point rainbow

I visited Volunteer Point twice, the first time by 4×4 and the second time by helicopter. It is not if, but rather when I return, I will definitely take the helicopter option next time, because the 4×4 was a long, uncomfortable drive that wasted a lot of the day. The time which could have been utilised for photography.

Sea Lion Island

A short 40-minute FIGAS flight from Stanley is located southeast of East Falkland and is 9 sq.km in size.  Originally the island was a sheep farm. In 1990 all sheep and rodents were removed, and the Island was converted into a protected island specifically for ecotourism.

Sea Lion Lodge is the only accommodation on this island It is a very comfortable and well-catered lodge.

Sea Lion Island Lodge, Falklands
Sea Lion Lodge
Gentoo penguins crossing their penguin highway
Gentoo penguin highway

A two-minute walk from the lodge will bring you to a very large gentoo penguin rookery, set in amongst large tufts of tussac grass.  These penguins have created their own personalised “penguin highway” leading down to a white sandy beach. They traverse this highway on their daily trips to and from their fishing expeditions. Tourists are able to observe and watch the daily antics of these very adorable flightless birds.

Gentoo penguin chicks in creche on a very stormy day
Gentoo colony of chicks, immediately outside Sea Lion Lodge on a very stormy day

Further down the beach, one comes across the world’s largest pinniped ~ the elephant seal.  Around one thousand individuals arrive ashore annually for the mating and breeding season, between September – November.  It was such a great experience watching these animals bask for hours on the sandy beaches. They were not bothered by our presence and from time to time they would rear up and roar at one another. This was a little scary for us as they can move very fast.

Southern elephant seals
Southern elephant seals, not sure if they were in conversation or singing in unison
Southern elephant seal
Southern elephant seal using its flipper to throw sand over its back
Southern elephant seal

A short 30-minute 4×4 drive from the lodge allows you to experience a large colony of rockhopper penguins, mingled in with a large colony blue-eyed cormorants. Both the rockhoppers and the cormorant’s colonies are perched high up on the edge of very exposed cliffs.  

Blue-eyed cormorant colony
Blue-eyed cormorant colony, Sea Lion Island
Blue-eyed cormorant colony
Blue-eyed cormorant colony, Sea Lion Island

Southern rockhoppers literally live their life on the edge!  It is very exposed, and they make dangerous, daily hopping treks down to the water and back up the sheer rock face for their fishing expeditions.

Southern rockhopper penguins
Southern rockhopper penguins, living life on the edge of the rocky cliffs
Southern rockhopper penguin trio, the three amigos
Southern rockhopper penguins returning from the sea

Sea Lion Island is also home to Southern sea lions. There is a small colony that lives below the cliff. Thankfully these cliffs provide a safe distance for the visitor as they are very fierce.

Southern sea lion male
Southern sea lion taken from the top of a cliff using a 600mm zoom lens and it was still too close for this giant male!
Southern sea lion gives birth to pup
Female southern sea lion gave birth while I was there, an incredible experience to witness, even for me as a midwife

On the south coast is the H.M.S. Sheffield memorial on Sea Lion Island

H.M.S. Sheffield memorial for those killed in Falklands War 1982
In loving memory of the brave men of H.M.S. Sheffield who were killed in action off the Falkland Islands on the 4th May 1982

On Sea Lion Island Macaroni penguins are very elusive and hard to find.  I managed to spot one which was trying to hide in amongst a colony of Rockhoppers!

Macaroni penguin
Macaroni penguin
Bleaker Island

Bleaker Island is situated in the south-east of the Falklands.  Home for Gentoo, southern rockhopper, and Magellanic penguins, plus many bird species and stunning landscapes with white sandy beaches. It has very comfortable eco-friendly accommodation and organically sustainable farming for sheep and cattle which live happily alongside the penguins.

Sunrise on Bleaker Island,
Sunrise, Bleaker Island
Rare white southern rockhopper penguin
Rare white southern rockhopper penguin chick
Colony of gentoo penguins
Southern rockhopper penguin colony, chicks beginning their molt
Gentoo penguin building nest
Nest building is ongoing!
Saunders Island

A short 30-minute FIGAS flight from Stanley is one of the few places where you can see the black-browed albatross.  They build their crater-like nests on the ground where the chicks remain for 120 days until they fledge. The very cute fluffy grey chicks can’t leave their nests and patiently wait for parents to return with food.

Black-browed albatross chicks on nest
Black-browed albatross chicks remain on their nests waiting for parents to return with food
Black-browed albatross courting
Mating black-browed albatross
Black-browed albatross

A large colony of rockhopper penguins also awaits on Saunders Island. If one feels brave, they can take a precarious and very steep descent down an exposed mountain side. This is somewhat of a challenge with a backpack full of heavy camera gear. The reward is a small cave with water dripping from the top referred to as the “rockhopper shower”. Rockhopper penguins queue up in an orderly and patient manner to take turns for a shower.

Southern rockhopper penguin shower
Rockhopper shower
Southern rockhopper penguin shower
Rockhopper shower

Also nearby is a small colony of blue-eyed cormorants going about their daily life.

Blue-eyed cormorants
Blue-eyed cormorants
Blue-eyed cormorant building nest
Nest building can be serious business

The Neck is an area on Saunders Island flanked on both sides with white sandy beaches and turquoise water. Both beaches are frequented by large colonies of Magellanic and gentoo penguins and a very small colony of king penguins, who make their daily trek to the ocean and back.

King penguin hatches
King penguin just hatched
Magellanic penguins on sandy beach
Magellanic penguins heading out to sea, The Neck, Saunders Island
Magellanic penguin burrows
Magellanic penguins guarding their nesting burrows in the ground
Magellanic penguins
Magellanic penguins
Magellanic penguins
A trio of Magellanic penguins
Gentoo penguins,  porpoising gentoo penguins
Gentoo penguins porpoising back to shore

Always on the lookout for a meal ~ the striated caracara and the skuas hover around, especially during breeding times to steal an egg or a penguin chick.

Caracara, birds of prey
Caracara
Caracara, birds of prey
Caracara perched ~ birds-eye view waiting to swoop in
skuas, birds of prey
Pair of skuas with stolen gentoo egg
Other flora and fauna that is spread over the islands
Red crowberries, diddle-dee berries
Red crowberries aka Diddle-dee berries ~ is made locally into the best red berry jam

Senecio candicans, sea cabbage
Senecio candicans aka Sea Cabbage, grows well in sand and very exposed areas
Sea kelp
Enormous amounts of sea kelp is constantly being washed up on the shores
Steamer ducks, falkland islands, sea lion island, flightless ducks, flightless birds
Flightless steamer ducks
Curlew, falkland island bird
Curlew
Turkey vultures, birds of prey
Turkey vultures, largest and most abundant bird of prey in the Falklands.

In only 14 days I did not have time to see all the islands and everything that the Falklands have to offer. I am led to believe that while they all have the same wildlife, each island’s landscape and wildlife is very unique and well worth visiting. I ended up taking over 20,000 photos, which is very easy to do in this place. I can’t show them all in this blog post but hopefully, these few will give you some idea of what this amazing destination has to offer. I will be checking out the other islands on my next visit.

References

https://facts.uk/17-fabulous-facts-about-falkland-islands/

http://www.falklandislands.com

https://www.falklandislands.com/things-to-do/attractions/falklands-flora#:~:text=Edible%20berries&text=The%20ubiquitous%20diddle%2Ddee%20is,baked%20into%20buns%20and%20pavlovas.

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