Albatross colony
nature, Travel

Island hopping in the Falklands

This is the account of an expedition cruise around the Falkland Islands in March 2020. This is the final instalment of the cruise on MS Fram, an explorer ship run by Hurtigruten, which visited the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

This blog only shows a few of the pictures from the trip. Many more can be seen in the YouTube video (link at the end).

We were at sea for two days from South Georgia to the Falkland Islands. While at sea there were albatross and petrels and other sea birds. There were also hourglass dolphins – black and white – swimming beside the ship.

Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands
Stanley, capital of the Falkland Islands

The Falkland Island trip began at Stanley, the capital of the Islands, where I went on a nature walk from Whalebone Cove to Gypsy Cove. The weather started out misty but the sun came out later. The guide pointed out many birds and plants that live on the Falklands.

I saw upland goose; kelp goose; turkey vulture; Falklands skua; blackish oystercatcher; pied or Magellanic oystercatcher; Falklands steamer duck, known locally as the Logger Duck, a flightless bird found only on the Falklands; Falklands thrush; long-tailed meadowlark; dark-faced ground tyrant; Magellanic or Jackass penguin; black-crowned night heron.

Steamer duck
Steamer duck
Dark-faced ground tyrant
Dark faced ground tyrant
Black-crowned night heron
Black-crowned night heron

We saw some low-growing plants that were diddle-dee bushes. They had red berries which are made into jam – they also make a sauce similar to cranberry sauce that goes well with upland goose. We also saw scurvy grass which had a citrus taste, wild celery, small fern, tall fern, tussac grass, native boxwood (hebe), marsh marigold and balsam bog which looked as though it was moss growing on a rock but was the whole plant.

Balsam bog
Balsam bog

There are still mines from the Falkland War being found and disarmed.

Shags on rock near Gypsy Cove
Shags on rock near Gypsy Cove

In the afternoon I wandered about the town seeing the cathedral and an excellent historic dockyard museum. It was interesting seeing the post office with its red telephone boxes and post boxes – it seemed more British than home in England.

Stanley post office
Stanley post office

We then had excursions on several of the islands that make up the Falklands archipelago: Saunders, Carcass, West Point, and New Island.

There were many shags flying around on the way to Saunders Island. The weather was clear skies and sun. Saunders Island had white sandy beaches and emerald water making it look quite tropical. No trees grow on the island.

Saunders Island
Saunders Island

There were four colonies of penguins: magellanic, king, rockhopper and gentoo. It was quite a long walk up a hill, Mount Richards, to get to the rockhopper colony and then even higher to the black-browed albatross rookery with the babies on their nests. Some were starting to fledge and were flexing their wings.

King penguins with young
King penguins with young
Young albatross flexing its wings
Young albatross flexing its wings

Saunders Island is privately owned and the owners have about 4000 sheep. It was strange seeing sheep and penguins together on the hillside. There was a shop which was a landrover with the owner of the island selling a few odds and ends from the back.

Sheep, penguins and geese
Sheep, penguins and geese

There were caracara birds which reminded me of pigeons in that they were pecking around looking for anything to eat. They are scavengers.

Next stop was Carcass Island which was only a short distance from Saunders Island. There was an 8k walk to Leopard Bay where there were more penguins. The walk was on grass over where the tractors go so it was an easy walk.

There were tussac birds – like small blackbirds – running around the beach. They were very tame. There were several caracara around as well as geese. The best part was seeing Cobb’s Wren – a bird endemic to the Falklands and then only on islands that are rat free. The wren was hopping about among the stones on the beach. It didn’t mind us standing there watching.

Tussac bird
Tussac bird
Cobb's wren
Cobb’s wren

The next morning was a beautiful sunny day with just a few whispy clouds, perfect for exploring West Point Island. The water in the bay was extremely clear and the sand was fine and white with large smooth rocks and pebbles.

We walked from the jetty at West Point Island over rolling hills to the other side of the island where there was a colony of rockhopper penguins and albatross nesting together. The albatrosses were mostly ready to fledge. We had to walk through six feet high tussac grass to get to where we could see the birds on the cliff.

At one time a caracara came into the nesting area. All the penguins made a racket and pointed their beaks towards the caracara.

Albatross and rockhopper penguins
Albatross and rockhopper penguins

On the walk I saw several tyrants, long-tailed meadowlark (known locally as a robin or military starling because of its red breast) and a Falklands thrush which was similar to our thrush. A caracara went around the head of a couple of walkers in front of me.

Our final day in the Falkland Islands was New island. We landed firstly at South Harbour where there were rusty ruins of a whaling station that was active for about eight years in the early 1900s. The water in the bay was clear and there was a lot of seaweed about. On some rocks on the beach were hundreds of mussels. We walked up a hill over diddle dee bushes for a scenic view over the bay.

Remains of whaling station at New Island
Remains of whaling station at New Island

There was a colony of gentoo penguins. A group of them seemed curious and came down towards us from the colony. The group would follow each other down, then stop as the leader became a bit wary, then they’d walk down a bit further. Occasionally they’d stop, turn around and dash back before coming down again. There were also a few caracara gliding in the wind. They came quite close.

Our final stop was Settlement Harbour. There were a couple of houses, a museum and a gift shop (closed). The water again was very clear and the beach fine white sand. In the water was the wreck of a boat, Protector, from the late 1930s. She was brought to the Falklands for a sealing venture and was eventually run onto the beach at Settlement Harbour.

Settlement Harbour
Wreck of Protector in Settlement Harbour

On this landing we had two routes to follow, one to a penguin and albatross rookery and the other to a viewpoint. The rookery had rockhopper penguins and albatross chicks. Shags are usually there as well but they had already left. There was a very strong breeze from on top of the cliffs when we were there, but there were several rocks to perch on to watch the birds. Between the cliffs was a gap where the water from the sea surged in.

Rockhopper penguins screeching
Rockhopper penguins

Caracara were not far away flying overhead. I walked back and saw a tyrant hovering. There were many geese on the hillside.

The next challenge was a climb up a 200 metre hill. It was easy footing but the first part was very steep. At the top was a WW2 lookout post built of dry stone. It was hollow on one side so you could lie in there with the stone walls protecting you from the prevailing wind. There was a magnificent view from the top of the hill.

View looking down to Settlement Harbour
View looking down to Settlement Harbour

Every island had wonderful scenery and the abundant bird wildlife so friendly. The Falkland Islands are definitely worth a return visit.

You can see many more interesting pictures of the Falkland Islands through my YouTube video:

nature, Travel

Visiting South Georgia

In March 2020 I went for an expedition cruise on MS Fram, an explorer ship run by Hurtigruten. We visited the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.

This is the second of the accounts of that trip, showing the pristine nature of South Georgia.

We were two days at sea for the journey from Antarctica to South Georgia. During our time at sea we saw lots of birds including white-chinned petrel, diving petrel, prion, light-mantled sooty albatross and my favourite, the wandering albatross. We’ve also seen whales.

Wandering albatross
Wandering albatross

We had to clean our boots meticulously in preparation for South Georgia, picking out any stones and tiny bits of grit from the soles of our muck boots. They were inspected by the expedition team. We had to hoover out rucksacks and the velcro from our clothes – all to ensure we weren’t taking any foreign organic material onshore. My boots were rejected first time as I had several bits of grit left, and then again after I’d washed them as I’d left some penguin poo behind. Once boots and clothing were passed we had to sign that we had read and complied with the regulations for South Georgia. They were later inspected by officials from South Georgia before we were allowed on shore.

First sighting of South Georgia
First sighting of South Georgia

Eventually we arrived at South Georgia, coming from the south and seeing Cooper Island, then passing by the coast northwards to Grytviken, the capital of South Georgia and our first landing place.

Grytviken
Grytviken

As soon as we were in South Georgia waters there have been many more birds from albatrosses, to blue-eyed shag, to macaroni, king and gentoo penguins in the water. We also saw a whale diving close to the ship and lots of seals.

Penguins swimming
Penguins swimming

Outside the harbour at Grytviken was HMS Forth, an Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV) of the Royal Navy.

HMS Forth
HMS Forth

There were lots of seals ashore at Grytviken among the ruins both on the grass and on the paths. They were mostly pups as the parents had gone fishing. Some of the pups came quite close to us and barked at us.

Seals among the remains of the whaling station
Seals among the remains of the whaling station

Grytviken is an old whaling station. Dotted around were the remains of the equipment they had used. There was also an excellent museum and a post office and shop.

The grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton is in the cemetery at Grytviken. In a building near the museum is a replica of the John Caird boat that he travelled from Elephant Island to South Georgia on, to get help for his expedition team.

Replica of John Caird
Replica of John Caird

The next, and last, day in South Georgia, we anchored in Fortuna Bay. There is a massive king penguin colony here with approximately 7000 breeding pairs. There were also hundreds of fur seals that we had to walk through to get to the penguins. They were mostly young pups and kept coming towards us, not worried by our presence at all but seeing what our reaction would be as they came closer. The penguins just carried on their walks ignoring us.

Seal pups in Fortuna Bay
Seal pups in Fortuna Bay
King penguin colony
King penguin colony

In the afternoon the ship moored the other side of Fortuna Bay so that those of us who were going on the Shackleton trek could go ashore.

As we landed, we saw a South Georgia Pipit, the world’s most southerly songbird. It nearly became extinct but the numbers are rising after a rat eradication programme was successful on South Georgia. It is only found on South Georgia.

South Georgia pipit
South Georgia pipit

I took part in and completed the 6 k Shackleton trek. We climbed up to 300 m over tussac grass and slate. This was the last part of the trek that Shackleton did in South Georgia when he was finding help for his shipmates. We walked half way up and stopped for a break, then stopped again at the highest point.

View back to the bay
View back to the bay

While we were on the trek the ship went around to Stromness to pick us up. It was good to see the MS Fram waiting for us when we got to the other side. It was a very steep slope down to the shore. The weather was perfect – sunny skies and a couple of clouds. At the top there was a cold wind but apart from that the temperature was perfect for walking.

MS Fram waiting for us at Stromness
MS Fram waiting for us at Stromness

Stromness is an abandoned whale factory but you couldn’t look inside the buildings as they were unsafe and also had asbestos in them. There were loads of seal pups around.

We left South Georgia. The next morning there were a group of fin whales around and coming close to the ship. I counted six of them at one time. There have been many albatrosses flying round the ship all day and several seals in the water. It was reported that dolphins have been seen but I didn’t see them.

Fin whales near the ship
Fin whales near the ship

In the distance were some pointed rocks – Shag Rocks – 250 k from South Georgia and 1000 k from the Falklands. As we got nearer South Georgia shags (blue-eyed shags) flew over; more and more as we got closer. Looking at the rocks there were thousands of shags standing on the rocks and flying around.

This was our last sight of land until we reached the Falkland Islands two days later.

You can see more pictures of South Georgia through my YouTube video: