The Falkland Islands - a wildlife wonderland

Imagine a world where you can have a full-on, Force 10 wildlife experience in the company of almost nobody else. The Falkland Islands is the war zone that became a wildlife wonderland.

Falkland Islands article spread
The fecund islands
The sea was boiling with life, and later I learned the source of this richness: the Patagonian continental shelf – a zone of shallow water stretching more than 150km north of the Falklands, 30km west and 50km south, which is nourished by nutrient-laden currents that surge from Antarctica. Fish, squid and krill abound on the submerged plateau and in turn sustain vast gatherings of seabirds and marine mammals.
True, some colonies are smaller now due to the impact of international fishing fleets, but they are still mightily impressive. Goodness knows what they must have been like before we arrived.
Island for sale: sold
An endearing eccentricity of the Falklands is that many of the 420 islands are privately owned, mostly by locals (I even heard of a chap who ‘collects’ uninhabited islets). On Carcass, I was the guest of Rob and Lorraine. Originally farmers, the couple now concentrate on low-intensity tourism, a bit like running a B&B with penguins in the garden.
The reduced sheep numbers have allowed the specialised native flora to flourish. I waded through pristine pastures of feathery knee-high grasses and spotted the rare Queen of the Falklands fritillary. To survive, this hardy butterfly has to fly low over the ground or risk being blown out to sea.
Happily, Carcass is one of the islands that has stayed cat- and rodent-free. This means it’s jumping with little ground-nesting birds, including the endemic Cobb’s wren, which to be honest is more mouse than bird and might well be on the evolutionary path to flightlessness.
With groups of elephant seals on the beach, too, the island is a nature-lover’s paradise. Every now and again, Rob told me, a wealthy visitor offers an enormous sum for it, but he always politely turns them down.
Go to the flow
Weddell Island came as a real contrast. What it lacks in small birds (thanks to those dreaded rats), it makes up for in atmosphere. Huge and starkly beautiful, Weddell took my breath away. The scenery, all undulating hills, bogs and dry heath, reminded me of the peaty ‘flow country’ in the north of Scotland – but with even fewer signs of human presence. During my stay, just two other people were there. Not bad for somewhere the size of Malta.
Weddell is special for another reason – it is home to the Patagonian fox, introduced from South America in the early 1930s. While watching one of these sandy-grey canids foraging on the kelp-strewn shoreline, I asked myself if this is how the Falkland wolf, or warrah, might have behaved. Sadly, we will never know, because farmers bludgeoned it to extinction by 1876. Or did they? Maybe a few warrahs survived into the 20th century on a lonely stretch of coast? It’s an intriguing thought.
Penguin Island
On to Pebble, one of the worst-named members of the Falklands family. Really it should be called Penguin Island, because here you can encounter five species: the gentoo, southern rockhopper, Magellanic, king and macaroni. I had not seen a wild penguin before this trip, and suffice to say my reaction was probably the same as everybody else’s: however hard you try, it’s impossible not to attribute human characteristics to these birds, or laugh at their endlessly entertaining antics.
My favourite was the ‘food chase’, in which greedy chicks would pursue their long-suffering parents up and down in the hope of a regurgitated meal, rather like a Benny Hill sketch, but with the added benefit of watching in smellovision (penguin colonies stink).
Sealion spectacular
My grand tour ended at Sea Lion Island, which is well named. In summer, its sweeping sandy beaches are littered with the magnificent animals. Standing on a low bank among mounds of wiry tussac grass, I got as close as I dared to take the requisite photos of the harrumphing males, which were lording it over harems of females suckling pups.
A little further on there were elephant seals; in November, a BBC crew came to this exact spot to film orcas attacking pregnant females in the breaking surf.
On my last morning, I got up early and left my binoculars and camera behind, determined to savour nature in the raw. I was utterly alone – apart from the penguins, petrels, caracaras, skuas, shags, sealions and seals, that is. I gazed south across the churning swell towards Antarctica, and, as if to remind me of its existence, an icy wind picked up, slicing at the headland without mercy
I returned to the lodge and the promise of a cooked breakfast, my fingers burning with the cold.
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here