Into the Falklands

We sailed from Ushuaia at 18h30 on the evening of 30 December, setting out into the Beagle Channel in excellent conditions with flat seas.  Earlier in the day, while the expedition participants were away on a tour of the Tierra del Fuego National Park, I had visited the ship for a handover from the doctor on the previous charter.  He was a gentlemanly New Zealander, and an anaesthetist to boot: we immediately got along well.  The medical facilities aboard the MV Polar Star are more basic than those with which I am familiar.  There is a small treatment room that fits one examination bed, a rack of gas tanks, a small bar fridge and numerous cupboards along the walls.  A large operating light on a boom is tied to the bulkhead to prevent it swinging; anaesthesia is via syringe or a swift swing of the portable oxygen bottle (*cheeky grin*).  Medical stocks are basic but cover the most important items.  I found a â??recentâ?? inventory â?? July 2009.  There is an AED but no defibrillator, no radiographic equipment, and sterilisation is by boiling items in the kitchen cooker.  Itâ??s expedition medicine in action. A few extra items needed to be acquired for the pharmacopeia, and so I walked into town with Craig Poore, the expedition historian.   We strolled the length of Ushuaia to find a specific large supermarket, with directions to walk until we were sure it was too far, and then just a little bit more. This proved to be an accurate description.  On returning, I ventured into one of the pharmacies in the main road armed with a letter of accreditation, medical qualifications, medical board registration, and several other forms of ID.  I introduced myself as the shipâ??s doctor, and proceeded to acquire a large bag-load of prescription drugs.  I walked out with my loot without writing a script or even showing proof that I was indeed a purveyor of the arts of Aesculapius and Panacea rather than a back-street meth maker.  Viva Argentina!

Passengers boarded at 16h00 after their tour and a visit to the museum in Ushuaia.  As we slipped away from the dock two and a half hours later the clouds broke apart to scatter beams of light among the mountain peaks and highlight yachts in the bay.   â??Ushuaiaâ? means â??bay extending to the Westâ?
in the native Yamana language, so we sailed eastwards into the Beagle Channel.  The mandatory lifeboat drill was accomplished without any rolling motion, which made my work much simpler, but I was still mobbed by concerned folks asking about seasickness medications.  To this end, as soon as we had eaten a fine dinner in the lounge I presented my talk on Motion Sickness. The questions resolved somewhat thereafter.
The evening was calm and beautiful, with mountains slipping by abeam as we steamed ahead.  The ship cruised as if on rails; light deepened and faded as midnight approached.  As the horizon became indistinct I could just see the open ocean beyond:  the voyage had truly begun.
Our first morning at sea on December 31st dawned gray but clear.  Staff were up on the stern and bridge wings from 06h30 to point out the bird species to be seen following the ship:  giant petrels predominated but we were soon joined by occasional Black-browed Albatross, Slender-billed Prions, Pintado Petrels and the like.  One of the greatest strengths of the Cheeseman expeditions is their absolute dedication to providing top-quality information about the animals, environment, and ecology, as well as wildlife photography and art.  This was immediately reflected in the calibre of my fellow staff.  Small group discussions developed into impromptu tutorials on animal behaviour, bird taxonomy or photographic technique.  The formal lecture program began in the observation lounge/lecture room:  during the day we covered the natural history of the Falklands, photographic
composition, zodiac safety, environmental protocols, wildlife illustration, seabirds of the Argentine Shelf, use of Adobe Lightroom and photographic workflow, general Falklands information and pgoto tips, and an after-dinner session on â??Zodiac Folliesâ? where I was tasked to play the ocean and drench
the lecturer when he â??carelesslyâ? turned his back.  The lectures, although not compulsory, were very well attended, and interspersed with people making
trips to the stern to watch birds and get fresh air.  I personally learnt a great deal about eh wildlife, and enjoyed new challenging ideas with regards to photography.
The day would not be complete without some form of New Yearâ??s celebration. In deference to the long day scheduled for the 1st (and the fact that the average age amongst participants aboard is 58) we held the countdown at 21h00 shipâ??s time, corresponding to midnight GMT.  Glasses of champagne were filled and drunk after a chorus of Auld Lang Syne led strongly by those from the Eastern Hemisphere.  A small group (dominated by the four Irish) stayed up to see in the New Year at midnight.  I was up on deck, taking in the fresh sea air, and it occurred to me that this is the third new year in a row that I have been down south, albeit that this one is not quite in Antarctica (yet!).  I mulled for a while on the concept of whether this is something to be proud of – my wandering soul – or sad at being away from loved ones.  In the end, I decided that that is precisely the poignancy that typifies each New Year , and allowed the ship to rock me to sleep.

The New Year dawned with the ship moored off a new country, in Coffin Harbour at New Island in the Falklands.  New Island is the most westerly inhabited island in the group, and is divided in two sections:  the southerly end owned by the New Island South Conservation Trust and is maintained as a wilderness and research area in perpetuity, currently managed by Ian and Maria Strange.  The northern section is owned by Tony and Kim Charter, and is also a wildlife reserve.  All sheep and other invasive species have been removed from the island, allowing the natural fauna and flora to flourish.  We were to visit several sites, spread between the south and north ends, predominantly to see colonies of Rockhopper, Gentoo and Magellanic Penguins, Black-Browed Albatross and Imperial  aka Blue-Eyed) Shags.

New Island owes its name to the American whalers that first used the island for shelter â?? many coming from areas such as New York,  New England, New Bedford, etc.  It is perhaps most famous for the story of Captain Charles H Barnard and his men.  Barnard was an American, master of the ship Nanina, which in April 1813 came across the shipwrecked crew of the British ship Isabella on New Island.  Barnard immediately rescued the Brits, as any good captain should.  However, this was shortly after the beginning of the 1812-1815 war between Britain and the US, and the newly-rescued crew of the Isabella took the Nanina by force as the spoils of war, marooning Barnard and his men on New Island until December 1814.  Barnardâ??s lot built a stone shelter at Coffinâ??s Harbour, which has now been converted into a small museum.  He wrote a book about his ordeals with the informative title â?? A Narrative of the Sufferings and Adventures of Captain Charles H Barnard, In a Voyage Around the World, During the Years 1812, 1813, 1814, 1815 & 1816; Embracing an Account of the Seizure of His Vessel at the Falkland Islands, By an English Crew Whom He had Rescued from the Horrors of A Shipwreck, And of Their Abandoning of Him on An Uninhabited Island, Where He Resided Nearly Two Years.â?  (Before you type that into Amazon to get the ISBN, it has been republished in 1979 under the title â??Maroonedâ?.  There is a message in their somewhere: probably itâ??s â??Every writer needs an editorâ?.)

Our plan for the day involved two landings; in the morning at Coffinâ??s Harbour so that we could make the short walk to the western side of the island to a large colony, and then in the afternoon at Shipâ??s Harbour, which allowed access to several nearby sites.  Neither â??harbourâ?? was anything of the kind, but rather simply protected bays, each with a decent small beach. The ship was repositioning in-between, but expeditioners were offered several options: to return to the ship for lunch before the  afternoon landing; to take a packed lunch and ride between bays aboard Zodiac inflatables; or to walk the 7km from the south to the north landings.  Of course, I volunteered for the latter option, which made good sense as I would be able to sweep behind with my medical kit in case of accident or illness.  Besides: I could see the sweeping green hills under sullen skies and was getting itchy feet. There are no real ports or harbours on the entire itinerary of this expedition except for one which is not even guaranteed to be available: Grytviken on South Georgia.  For the rest, we make shore  landings using Zodiacs, coming in through the surf on beaches whenever possible but in some spots simply alongside rocks on the shore.  Coffinâ??s (aka Settlement) Harbour fell into the first category, and fortunately (for the first landing of the trip) was dead calm.  With my rucksack filled with medical and camera equipment and wearing full waterproofs I descended the gangway to the waiting staff boat.  We rode swiftly into the narrow bay, past the wreck of the Protector, a 1930s wooden minesweeper brought here as a sealing vessel and eventually beached when the trade disintegrated through overexploitation.  Reaching the shore,  we hopped out into the ankle-deep water and held the boat secure while all disembarked.  Hugh Rose â?? our assistant expedition leader and an accomplished wildlife photographer and naturalist â??turned it around and headed back to the ship for the first load of passengers.  On the beach, the staff were greeted by representatives of both families, stepping into English culture more typical than if weâ??d arrived in an Enid Blyton novel.   I met Tony Charter next to his well-used Land Rover and purchased some first-day covers adorned with Falklands stamps featuring his artwork, and then chatted to young Georgina, attractively sporting the latest UK country fashions and an accent that would melt butter faster than fresh scones.  With the sun hidden in the overcast and a crisp breeze off the sea, the illusion of having arrived in Britain was almost perfect… perfect, that is, until I spotted a Magellanic Penguin.
As the expeditionâ??s doctor I am not spared the rest of the work.  Had my prior experience been different, this may have irked, but from the earliest days of the SANAE trip I was used to all on the team throwing in their weight together.  On this first landing, my task was to brief the passengers as they disembarked, and thus I enthusiastically greeted each batch of 8-10 and gave them the rundown:  times of zodiacs back to the ship, times and locations for bird walks, art classes and photo seminars, directions to the colony and restricted areas.  The spirit was jovial but the tension palpable:  here was a group of enthusiasts who had invested vast quantities of time and money to reach this point, and  hey were rearing to go.

Once everyone had safely departed, I shouldered my pack and walked slowly up the hill towards the other side of the island and the waiting colony.  The earth was saturated from the morningâ??s rain, and  the feeling of being in the English countryside persisted:  alongside the muddy track ran an old dilapidated fence-line ran, obsolete due to the eradication of the sheep it once restricted.  Rabbits hopped through the long grass on the other side, reminding me of Watership Down.  Out of place, however, were the Uplands Geese, and a the tussac-grass humps at the head of the trail.

Beyond the tussac I reached a wall of tripods, manned by the expeditioners and armed with long lenses.  It was rather tricky to see the point in bringing out the big cannons (on Canons!) when it became apparent that the bird colony began almost at their feet.  To be fair, all were observing the self-imposed rule of not approaching wildlife closer than 5 meters (or  staying further away if the animals showed any signs of being disturbed), but this certainly didnâ??t stop the wildlife from coming over and pecking curiously at the feet of both tripods and people.  Most striking, perhaps, was the way that the teeming birds showed no acknowledgement of the humans whatsoever, instead wheeling through the sky and clambering over the ground in dignified chaos.

This particular colony featured a gulley off to one side through which the rockhoppers would ascend  and descend going to and from the sea.  It was a steep climb down through the chest-high tussac, and we were worried that it would be a possible site for injury, so I was dispatched to the area.  I had about 20 minutes before being on duty at the top, briefing people on how to descend and where to cross to avoid disturbing the penguins, so I went on down and clambered over the jumbled boulders to the seashore, where I could watch rockhoppers flying from the waves onto the rocks, and then making their comedic procession of well-deliberated hops up through the cliffs to their nests.  Albatrosses were dotted about on high spots, and blue-eyed shags (cormorants) decorated the rocks, startling with their yellow patches on the upper beak and deep blue eye rings.  I snapped off some photographs and then moved back to the gully, where I could assist the passengers moving up and down.  Despite carrying a large backpack, I had great sympathy for the procession of 500mm and longer telephoto lenses being schlepped along.

Time at the colony passed quickly, but all were ecstatic about the wildlife and the experience.  Although Iâ??ve been close to African Penguins (which are of the same genus and closely resemble the Magellanic) Iâ??d never spent so much time so close to this many animals.  The shags and albatrosses ignored us as we passed a few meters away, and birds whistled by our heads as they came in to land.  All too soon we needed to walk swiftly back down to the landing, leaving Settlement Rookery behind. The logistics were running smoothly; packed lunches had arrived and those going back to the ship were rapidly ushered into boats.  The first staff set off to lead the hike over to the northern landing, and zodiacs cruising there along the coast departed.  I remained to help pack the rubbish on the last boat and say goodbye to the locals.  By then, the clouds had begun to part and a gentle sunshine warmed our faces.  I jokingly asked if the New Islanders wanted a doctor, and much to expedition leader Tedâ??s frustration they replied in the affirmative.  He threatened to confine me to the boat if I was doing to try and jump ship at every island 😉

I pushed out the zodiac and waved to Ted as he set off, then pulled on my pack and began up the hill out of Coffinâ??s Harbour.  Halfway up the steady climb, I paused to look back and saw Georgina and the others still sitting outside Barnardâ??s building.  She raised a hand in farewell, and I couldnâ??t help reflecting on what this life must be like, with only two families and a few others on a small island; not unlike my own experience in the Antarctic.  Still, it differs from being at an overwintering research station, and since Barnardâ??s day things have changed: they could now depart for the â??civilisedâ?? world at any time.  Of course, like Hurley, â??civilisedâ?? in my mind does not equate to â??populatedâ??, and with the beauty of the island embracing me it was not difficult to understand their choice of solitude.  I mulled over these thoughts for a while, watching the beams of light between the shifting clouds play across the land and sea, and then turned and walked on, over the ridge.

Beyond the crest of the ridge the vista opened wide before me: Shipâ??s Harbour bay, with the small mound of Shipâ??s Island in the middle, like the pupil of an oversize eye.  The Polar Star was already anchored in the lee of the northern side, looking like a toy against the backdrop of the sweeping island hills.  Below me the path dropped down to two small huts and the remnants of a fence line, dating from when sheep were still actively farmed.  I could see the track extending past the huts and around the bend of the next peninsula, with small specks of people ambling northward like relaxed penguins.  I sat for a while to let them get ahead, enjoying the view. While I waited, a pair of Striated Caracara landed nearby and began their inspection.  The caracara is one of the rarest birds of prey on the planet, found only in the Falklands.  It has the regal bearing of an eagle, is about the size of a large hawk, but behaves much more like a cunning raven.  Known by the islanders as â??Johnny Rooksâ?, they are renowned for their mischievous personalities.  I had already been regaled with the story of one previous Cheeseman expeditioner who put down her binoculars on a rock only to have them stolen by a curious caracara.  It couldnâ??t quite gain altitude carrying the heavy optics by their strap, and so they bounced merrily down the slope behind the bird, striking outcrops of rock along the way.  I pulled my
belongings closer.
Caracaras eat what they can, typically preying on the fringes of the other bird colonies, taking chicks and the weak and injured.  The juveniles form hunting gangs or packs, which have been observed to use group tactics to catch prey.  They have a curious way of running across the ground, shoulders loosely stooped and head low, with talons flicking out to change direction quickly that reminds me of a wild dog or wolf.. but this is a wolf that can spring into the air whenever needed.  Despised by many, I warmed to their character and wily ways.  By lying down and pretending to be dead, I spent a while on the hillside photographing their antics as they came over to see if I was ready to be eaten. Eventually I couldnâ??t spot more than a few people on the route below and so I pressed on, stopping many times to photograph the Magellanic Penguins, another caracara on the roof of the hut, and even an artistic landscape image.  After 7km of walking I reached the northern landing with the stragglers just on time to assist with one of the hourly launches/landings. I didnâ??t have time to change into waterproofs, and so instead ditched my boots and socks and waded into the water in my shorts, much to the shock and surprise of everyone else on the beach.  The water was a cool 4°C, but quite pleasant on the foot after a good walk.  It was amusing to see my bare foot prints passing the fully-shelled passengers on the beach.

After the waiting passengers were off the beach I had another 90 minute gap before we had to depart.  I decided to hike briskly over to another black-brow and rockhopper colony on the western side, where I also hoped to photograph the blue-eyed shag.  It was well worth the walk: light conditions were perfect, we were within a few meters of the animals, and the penguins threaded their way between the photographers as they moved about.  One rockhopper presented a stone to a young and pretty blond expeditioner, clearly indicating his desire to pair.  She is still trying to live it down.

The beauty of the day and spectacular weather were not the end of our good fortune.  On the way back to the boats I came across the beautiful Longtailed Meadowlark right in the middle of the path, with its beautiful crimson breast and delicate black and brown back markings.  It was the last of the Falkland specialities that I really wanted to see, and so it was with elation that I climbed back into the last zodiac and skimmed back to the ship.  What an amazing way to begin a new year, and a perfect first landing for the expedition.  If this sets the standard, we are certainly in for the experience of a lifetime.

One Response to “Into the Falklands”

  1. mariastrange Says:

    Thank you for glowing commentary on your visit to New Island, and hope the rest of your journey followed a similar pattern of enjoyment.

    Just to put the record straight, the whole of New Island is under ownership by the New Island Conservation Trust. (Tony Chater sold to the Trust in 2005/6).

    For further information check out (in the process of being updated but still very much current).

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