There is some logic to the title of this blog, which started with my long weekend on Sea Lion Island, one of the most southerly of the Falkland Islands archipelago. Despite its name, Sea Lion Island is now more well known for its elephant seal colonies, which are quite the most extraordinary animals I think I have ever had the privilege to see in the wild. Reader, I fell in love with them (with apologies to Jane Austen!) Their beautiful serene faces in repose, along with the long trunks which the males develop with age, reminded me of Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass – the source of my title.
And this Island really is a most important place. Its 905 hectares were once home to thousands of sheep which were bred for the wool market. As in many parts of the Falkland Islands, and all over the world, overstocking led to destruction of natural habitats and erosion of important peatlands. During a slump in wool prices however the Island was returned to nature, and nature showed just what she can do when given the chance to recover. With grazing pressure reduced, flowering plants thrived and there are now 56 species blossoming. Falklands Conservation has given the native tussock grass a helping hand and replanted many of the barren peatlands. The result is a paradise for birds and insects – and those people lucky enough to visit.
We (the lovely Marina, who I work with, and her equally lovely partner Marcello) had our first wildlife encounter before we had even landed on the Island. Coming in to land in the tiny FIGAS plane, we saw three orca patrolling the shallow waters close to one of the main elephant seal colonies – and it was pretty much non-stop from then on! Within ten minutes of arrival we set off, through vast numbers of nesting gentoo and Magellanic penguins, to a stunning white sandy beach. What at first appeared to be vast and random boulders strewn across the beach turned out to be male elephant seals, surrounded by their harems.
The seals have a very short, but intense, breeding season between September and November in the Southern hemisphere. Alpha males control harems of up to 150 females and their entire time whilst ‘hauled out’ is dedicated to establishing this harem, mating, and defending their territory. On the periphery, younger and weaker males challenge the alphas and try to either take over harems, or sneak in to mate where they can. The result is a soap-opera to rival anything the BBC can put on air!
If the defining feature of a penguin rookery is the fishy-poo smell, then with elephant seal colonies it has to be the sound. There is a constant cacophony of almost bird-like squeaks and squarks from the young pups, surprisingly deep warnings from females when another female (or unwanted male) gets too close to their pups, and then there is the booming, resonant roars from the males as they face up to each other. We were lucky enough to watch two of the largest males fight for one of the big harems, and it was an incredible experience. Fights normally last an average of 30 seconds as it is physically exhausting for the males, and most disputes are settled without blood being shed. This one lasted for more than three minutes and saw a change of alpha male. Standing just 10 metres away as two three-and-a-half-tonne bulls battled it out is something I will never forget; it was like being in my own personal David Attenborough documentary!
Some smaller and weaker bulls have adopted different tactics, using their brain rather than brawn to pass on their genes. A particular favourite was Pato, who spent most of his time lurking silently in the water close to the biggest colony. He would patiently watch and wait for an alpha male to be distracted and slowly, slowly sneak up the beach to find a receptive female. Most of the time the alpha male, seemingly fast asleep, would spot him and, frighteningly quickly, chase poor Pato off. But just occasionally he would triumph, his biological imperative fulfilled, and we would give him a little cheer!
There are just over 2,000 elephant seals on the Island, and every single one is tagged and marked with a name by the incredibly dedicated Elephant Seal Research Group. The names are painted on with hair-dye, which comes off when the seals moult just before they return to sea so they are completely unharmed by this. The researchers spend twelve hours a day in sometimes appalling weather, for the entire breeding season, recording the seal’s behaviour and monitoring their health and growth. Like many devoted scientific researchers, the Group runs on a very small budget and yet their work is helping to better understand, and therefore protect, these wonderful animals. If you have enjoyed this blog, then please consider giving them a bit of your hard-earned cash!
Wandering away from the elephant seals, and further around the Island, we also visited several colonies of southern rockhopper penguins.The rockhoppers, with their dancing yellow eyebrows, are the smallest penguins on the Falkland Islands and by far the most comical as they live up to their name. Nesting alongside them were elegant king cormorants, which have very similar colouring to penguins; it’s quite disconcerting to see them fly in and out of the rookery, as your brain is in flightless ‘penguin-mode’! Another bird to watch out for was the striated caracara (known locally as the Johnny Rook), a beautiful and bold bird of prey constantly on the look out for its next meal – and they are not averse to stealing hats from unsuspecting visitors too!
Located between two of the largest rockhopper colonies is the simple HMS Sheffield memorial, dedicated to the twenty men who lost their lives on 4th May 1982. A family friend was serving on the Sheffield on that fateful day and, when he knew I would be moving to the Falkland Islands, he asked me if I would visit the memorial if I had the opportunity. It was a sobering and poignant moment as I laid a wreath on his behalf, and it brought new meaning to the Falklands War to me as I thought about how these men fought to protect the lifestyle that I’m now enjoying. The War is ever-present here and, when I have a better understanding of the subtleties, I’m sure it is something I will return to in this blog.
Completing the circuit of the Island – we walked for eight-hours each day – we enjoyed the wetland interiors teeming with delicately marked ducks, the ubiquitous upland geese and their fluffy goslings, and elegant snipe so beautifully camouflaged that you could almost tread on them before you saw them! And accompanied always by those menacing Johnny Rooks! We also climbed an enormous, vegetated, sand dune to enjoy views over at least half the Island, with the two huge sandy beaches stretched out before us as the sun started to set.
Our last morning was not quite so beautiful as a howling wind brought lashing rain and freezing temperatures. Undeterred, we set off in the hope of spotting the resident orca pods, which had so far eluded us, before we had to leave at lunchtime. Within an hour we were thrilled to see the unmistakable large black fins and flashes of white which announced their arrival. Although we didn’t see them close to shore, we were able to watch as they lurked waiting for a young elephant seal weanling to make its first foray out to sea. Totally worth the thorough soaking we received!
Reluctantly we climbed, still soaking, into the Islander plane which was to take us back to Stanley… eventually! I should probably explain how FIGAS flights work; there are no scheduled flights, you simply call up and say where you want to go. Then, depending on how many passengers there are, and where everyone wants to go, FIGAS will work out a route. On the way out there was only the three of us, so we flew directly to Sea Lion Island in just 35 minutes. On the way back there was a couple who wanted to go to Saunders Island. If you look on a map of the Falkland Islands, Saunders lies to the far north of the archipelago, so we were in for a long flight home!
Compared to other small planes that I have flown on in the tropics, FIGAS planes fly pretty low at the best of times; but on this return trip we were having to fly extremely low to stay under the heavy cloud cover and roaring winds. The result was a spectacular two hour journey where, at times, I felt I could reach out and touch the passing mountains. It was a fantastic way to see more of the Falklands, but I think it was only the sheer beauty that unfolded below me that enabled me to hang onto my breakfast… it was a very bumpy ride!
*The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman, 2000.