“…because where we are is always the most important place.”*

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.

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Elephant seal or Mulefa?!?

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.

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Nature at its very finest

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.

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Bull elephant seal defending his harem. Note the size of him compared to Marina!

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!

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Trunks at dawn! Pato faces up to Brut (instead of his usual stealth tactics!) This wasn’t the big fight I mention below, which i captured on video but not on ‘film’.

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!

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Cuteness overload! Pups are fed for around 23 days, during which time they quadruple in weight!

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!

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Pato in his more normal position, watching and waiting for a chance to sneak into the harem.

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!

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Southern rockhopper penguins on their nests, and huddling against the roaring wind!

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!

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Striated caracara, or Johnny Rook, on the look out for an unattended nest. Spot the king cormorants!

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.

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Laying a wreath on HMS Sheffield memorial, in honour of the twenty sailors who lost their lives on May 4th 1982.

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.

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One of the many beautiful beaches on the Island

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!

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Snipe, what snipe?!?

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!

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Gratuitous gentoo penguins on a beach shot. Just because! 

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!

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Somewhere on the way to Saunders Island, flying below the clouds!

*The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman, 2000.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Well quite a lot as it happens! As most of you will know, I have had a fascination for Antarctica and penguins since I was very small. So when I announced to my ex-colleagues at Pew that I was leaving to come down to the Falkland Islands, the subject line of my email was “I’m off to play with the penguins”. A few smutty jokes ensued but, mulling it over, I decided that ‘playing with penguins’ would be a good title for my new blog. Little did I know however that I would be living up to this title quite literally!

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An oiled Snowy when she was first found on Surf Bay beach. Photo copyright of Falklands Conservation

The Falkland Islands are home to as many as a million penguins during the summer, and five of the world’s seventeen species – King, Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic and Macaroni. The Gentoo population is in fact the largest in the world. The chances of seeing them here are therefore pretty high!

King penguins are at the northern edge of their range in the Falkland Islands, and the population is thought to be up to 1,500 breeding adults – almost all of which can be found about two hour’s drive from Stanley at a place called Volunteer Point. They range far and wide searching for food – principally lantern fish and squid – and spend large periods of their lives at sea. Apparently they dive deeper than any other penguins and can reach depths of up to 300m… now that’s my kind of penguin!

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The vibrant orange on the King penguin is so beautiful, and each penguin has its own unique markings

In the winter (that’s the Austral winter, corresponding to the UK summer) food is more scarce and they can range hundreds of miles to find it. In doing so, they become more exposed to the numerous man-made hazards which await so many marine creatures today. One of these hazards is oil which has either been accidentally or, more often, deliberately discharged from ships. There are international treaties which are meant to regulate this (Annex I of MARPOL 73/78 – is the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as modified by the Protocol of 1978 – for those that like the detail!) but it is difficult to enforce due to the vastness of the oceans and sheer volume of shipping. The results however can be catastrophic for seabirds.

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Snowy (foreground) and Romeo in the rehab centre

Oil, as we all know, does not mix with water but it is very quickly absorbed into birds’ feathers; this decreases their insulation from the cold, as well as their waterproofing and buoyancy. Unless they are found and treated this almost inevitably leads to their death by hypothermia or starvation. I didn’t realise that just one spot of oil can do this.

Every year, starting around August, ‘oiled’ penguins start to appear on the Falkland Islands’ beaches but fortunately the dedicated staff at Falklands Conservation are on-hand to rescue and rehabilitate them. They have a special rehab centre, pretty close to where I live, which includes a large indoor area and their own swimming pool. It’s first inhabitant this year was a King penguin which was quickly named Snowdrop, soon shortened to Snowy.

Snowy was joined about a week later by Romeo. Romeo was found in one of the remoter areas of Camp and was flown into Stanley by one of the Falkland Islands Government Islander planes which are used like ‘buses’ here. She was named after the call sign – Bravo Romeo – of the plane!

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I was fascinated by how the two penguins ‘mirrored’ each other when walking around and feeding

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It had to be done! Penguin selfie!

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I just love how the light plays on their feathers

The penguins are allowed to settle and then washed with detergent to remove all of the oil in their feathers. In doing so however, all the bird’s natural oils are also removed and the penguins must stay in rehab until they are fully ‘waterproof’ again. They need to be fed, watered and checked-over twice a day, which requires a small handful of volunteers to manage. And guess who was front of the queue!

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Snowy obligingly showing the keratinised bristles on her tongue!

The routine is as follows:

  1. Dress up in ALL your warmest clothes – the rehab centre is at the top of Stanley and a freezing cold wind always seems to be blowing!
  2. Pull on some latex gloves to avoid stinking of sardines for the next week!
  3. Inject up to 20 sardines (generously donated by local fishing companies) with water, which ensures the penguins are getting enough fluids. Penguins normally drink salt water in the wild and are able to do this because they have special glands abound the eye sockets that extract excess salt from their blood, which is then excreted through the nasal passages.
  4. Rub a sardine on the penguin’s beak to stimulate her to feed. Penguins are used to catching their food, so they cannot simply be fed from a bowl!
  5. Feed the sardine head-first to ensure said fish goes down the right way (penguin tongues have large, uni-directional, keratinised bristles that help grip food).
  6. Shower penguin to stimulate preening behaviour – this helps spread the natural oils around her body, creating that waterproof layer which keeps them alive in freezing temperatures.
  7. Clean up VERY smelly fishy-poo! and finally…
  8. Spend the next half hour watching them pootle around on their dinky little feet, take hundreds of photos and simply enjoy being in the presence of such magnificent, charismatic creatures.
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Happy feet! Happy Ness!

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Snowy and Romeo get their first smell of the ocean! Photo copyright of Falklands Conservation.

Finally, I must apologise for my radio silence – I have had a lot of ‘when are you going to write your next blog’ questions coming in! It may seem like I am on holiday, but I do actually have a job down here, and I have been flat-out these last few weeks! Tomorrow I am off to Sea Lion Island for a long weekend. I am beyond excited to see elephant seals at the height of the breeding season, three species of penguins, albatross and (hopefully) orca. I *think* the next blog might be quite soon 😉

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Free! Although Snowy took longer to swim off – she quite liked being hand-fed sardines! Photo copyright of Falklands Conservation.

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things*

My wildlife encounters have slowed down recently, so I thought that I would turn to Island life this week. The Falkland Islands has it’s own unique dialect, culture and heritage which I am looking forward to exploring more through my work over the coming months.  Yet, in other ways, it is more ‘British’ than the Britain I left behind. The Union Jack is flown outside many houses, the Queen’s birthday is celebrated as a public holiday, there are two iconic red telephone boxes in Stanley, and there is even a London double decker bus – used more for publicity than for actual transportation purposes – but a bright red, double decker bus nevertheless!

Which takes me to the main focus of this post. Driving. Yes, a strange topic at first glance, but  one which actually highlights many of the idiosyncrasies of life here. Let’s start with the roads. That bus wouldn’t last five minutes outside of the town. Currently, apart from Stanley, there are no paved roads except for intermittent stretches of the main link between Stanley and the Mount Pleasant Complex (MPC). In many places, the MPC road looks like this:

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The main road between the airport and Stanley. Photo by Thomas Gregory.

The remainder of roads are ‘graded’ or dirt roads at best, with many other routes completely off-grid. There is no public transport, and one taxi for the whole of Stanley, so the only viable transport option is therefore a 4×4 vehicle, quad-bike or cross-country motorbike. The very few ‘normal’ cars, which can only be driven in few square miles of Stanley, stand out like the proverbial sore-thumb. In the days before 4×4 cars arrived, Islanders living in Camp (any part of the Islands outside of Stanley is known as Camp, which is derived from the Spanish word campo, for “countryside”) relied on small, hardy ponies and horses to get around. There are still many equines on the Islands, and there is an active horse-owners association here, but they are now principally used for leisure.

I digress, so back to driving! You may remember that I purchased my own 4×4 before I even arrived on-Island. Her name is Loretta (formerly known as Stan – Monty Python fans will get the reference!) and she is (whispers) an ageing Mitsubishi Shogun with massive tyres and an equally massive cracked windscreen. Here we are in action, tackling a more civilised part of the MPC road!

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About half way between Stanley and MPC – photo beautifully highlighting the crack in Loretta’s windscreen!

Driving these roads is in equal parts exhilarating, awe-inspiring, and down right terrifying! The pot-holes on the MPC road are big enough in places to lose an entire vehicle (well, a slight exaggeration, but not far off!) and if you hit them wrong you stand a chance of being catapulted into one of the extra deep drainage ditches on either side of the road. This is compounded by the gusting, high, winds which can take you completely unawares. The sheer beauty of the scenery, the vast open skies, and the splendid sense of wilderness however are simply breathtaking. It’s hard to describe the way the light bounces off the surrounding mountains and how they stand out in brilliant sharp-relief as the sun starts to go down. The sheer joy of the open road is a wonderful feeling which also brings back early and happy memories of growing up in Wiltshire, and driving across the Yorkshire Moors in my trusty Landrover Maud.

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Slightly cheating as this wasn’t taken from my car, but typical Camp scenery outside Stanley

The speed limit for the entire Islands is 40mph which, believe me, is quite fast enough for the majority of the roads. In Stanley, the limit is 25mph everywhere except the ‘bypass’, where it is again 40mph. Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly wild, I will drive home via the bypass, just to get a speed-fix! You go over the limit at your peril however – traffic offences are taken very seriously here and if you are fined you are publicly named and shamed in the Penguin News!

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Speed at your peril! The Penguin News

The one petrol station is located on the bypass and is much like those at home except for the price; diesel is currently 49p per litre. No wonder that Falkland Islanders drive everywhere – well, the freezing wind and rain-sleet-snow might also come into play in the winter! As there is little crime on the Islands, cars are never locked and people will often leave them running whilst they nip into the supermarket.

I cannot leave these observations on driving without mentioning the ‘Falklands’ Finger’. Any of you who have lived in remote rural areas will recognise a version of the ‘Finger’ – here it is extended not just to fellow drivers, but also to anyone you happen to pass on the road. The skill is trying to anticipate the type of greeting you might get – and therefore the appropriate response to make – which can range from a full-on wave, to an almost imperceptible twitching of an index finger. I think I’m getting better at it, but I still occasionally have to hastily retract an over-enthusiastic greeting! As summer approaches, I will get in lots more practice as I take Loretta on further adventures to explore these beautiful Islands. I hope you will continue to join me on my journey.

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Loretta after a trip to MPC and back. Fortunately it snowed a few days later which cleaned her up very nicely!

*Henry Miller (1957). Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

And if you be a philosopher…*

This blog-post was going to be about either food, or driving in the Falkland Islands… or even my new-found knitting habit… but instead I want to tell you about one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Last week I decided to take the day off to help out one of the scientists working on the ‘Dolphins of the Kelp’ project here at SAERI. There is still so much to know about the marine life around the Falkland Islands, and this project is trying to learn more about the population and biology of two kelp-reliant dolphin species – Commerson’s (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) and Peale’s (Lagenorhynchus australis). More on the project can be found here: http://www.south-atlantic-research.org/research/current-research/dolphins-of-the-kelp

We were going out to conduct a boat-based survey  to collect photo-identification in the Port Stanley – Port Williams – Berkeley Sound study area. This involves seven hours at sea in a small RHIB, driving around the coastline on the lookout for dolphin groups. Once spotted, high-definition photos are taken of the fins of each dolphin from the left and right. Well, that’s the theory anyway! These dolphins are insanely quick and unpredictable in their movements, so second-guessing where they will surface is quite challenging!

The wind here in the Falkland Islands is notoriously cold. Being on an open boat in the middle of winter is not the warmest of places, but luckily the project has some excellent wind and waterproof suits. Under this I wore my dry-suit thermals, neck-warmer and wooly hat. It is a good look, I think!

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Looking good!

The day really didn’t start too well though. I would normally have all my kit squared-away in a dry bag. But with a limited weight allowance on the plane, this was left behind. Result, one i-Phone dropped into the harbour whilst getting on the RHIB. Tide and time waits for no man (or woman!) so we had to set off with the intention of recovering the phone on our return.

The dropped phone and cold were soon forgotten, however, when we spotted the familiar sight of two spouts of exhaled, moist, air. Southern right whales! The whales have been hanging around the area for a couple of months now, and it is thought that they will calve here in a couple of weeks. There have been estimates of up to 40 individuals.

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) are so named because whalers considered them the ‘right whale’ to catch, being easy to approach, swimming slowly, living close to shore and floating when dead to make access simpler. As a result between 1805 and 1844 alone, about 45,000 right whales were killed and they came very close to extinction (source, Whale & Dolphin Conservation). They also have the largest testes in the animal kingdom, with each pair weighing a tonne!!!

Dolphins forgotten, we quietly and slowly approached the whales and turned off the engine. Eventually we were surrounded by seven whales. They were every bit as curious of us as we were of them, and they spent a lot of time ‘spy-hopping’ – sticking their heads out of the water – to check us out.

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‘Spy-hopping’ southern right whale

Much of the time they were resting quietly on the surface, exhaling noisily every few minutes, or lazily slapping a fin.

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Surfacing to breath. The growths on their heads and jaw are called ‘callosities’ and they contain whale lice – a type of crustacean – which is what makes them look white.

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Fin slapping

At one point, we had a whale perfectly aligned with the RHIB, about a metre under the water, and we happily sat together in silence watching each other. These animals are completely passive, gentle creatures, but we had a little scare when one individual misjudged its depth and head-butted our very small boat. I’m not sure who had more of a shock! We also captured some amazing underwater footage with a go-pro on a long pole; the file is too large to upload though. Sorry!

After an hour with the whales we reluctantly started the engine again and went off in search of the dolphins. In total we found ten separate groups of up to twelve individuals, and had some great encounters. The normally erratic dolphins cooperated with us to enable some fantastic data collection and had great fun slapping the water at the just the right time to soak us all! I spent a considerable amount of time at the pointy end of the RHIB, filming with the underwater set-up. Watching these incredible creatures just feet away was magical. And wet, so very, very wet!

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Peale’s dolphin breaching with a couple more in the foreground, just under the surface

We stopped for lunch in a sheltered bay, and sat munching our sandwiches watching a leopard seal that was hauled out on the beach. We made sure to keep an eye out for it re-entering the water, as they have been known to drag people off open boats…!

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Open wide! Leopard seal showing us why they are one of the apex predators of the Southern oceans!

As the light began to fade, we set off for home. To my great joy, we saw gentoo and king penguins porpoising in the water on their way back to land after a day feeding at sea (no photos, camera battery had died at this point!) and a couple of giant petrels soaring majestically overhead. This place is truly inspirational!

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Peale’s dolphin in the crystal-clear waters close to shore

We got back to the harbour close to sunset. I raced home, picked up my dive kit, and jumped into the freezing water to find my phone. It was dark and murky, but I found it within thirty seconds. It is, alas and predictably, a write-off – but at least the SIM card is working. But do you know what, it was a small price to pay for an incredible day!

* With thanks to Herman Melville for the title!

Meeting the locals

It’s hard to believe, but I’m now into my fourth week here in the Falkland Islands. Despite the considerably slower pace of life, time has sped by thanks to a combination of work deadlines, long weekend walks, and after-work visits to the pub. In the last couple of weeks I have organised and run an advisory group meeting, and a big stakeholder workshop. I have conducted a lot of this sort of work over the years, but never in a location where you bump into your stakeholders at every turn; Government members in the supermarket, drinks with half the civil-service at a house party on a Friday night and invitations to dinner with the head of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Government (who also happens to be your next-door neighbour!)

My work colleagues are equally social, and it seems that any day with a ‘Y’ in it is worth celebrating! That said, I have arrived at a very exciting time for SAERI as they gained their ‘independence’ from the Falkland Island Government (planned since it’s inception), and the papers making it a UK-registered charity were signed in my first week. The champagne, put to chill next to the intertidal invertebrate samples in the fridge, was in full flow and we were all given some lovely commemorative goodies to stagger home with!

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SAERI goodies to celebrate charitable status

I’ve also been busy meeting the (slightly) wilder residents of the Islands; starting with an incredibly lucky encounter a couple of weeks ago. Love it or loath it Facebook plays an important cohesive role here, and word went out on the Falkland Island Community Page that a young leopard seal was hauled-out at Surf Bay – just a few minutes drive from Stanley. Metaphorical pens were dropped, and off we headed, en-masse, to the beach. The seal looked thin and ill and calls were made to the Government vet to ensure it was checked-out.

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Leopard seal – turns out it was just chilling in the sun!

There was relief all-round when it swam off the next day. To think that just a month ago my lunchtime consisted of a quick five-minute dash to M&S and trying to stop the sandwich crumbs falling into the cracks in my keyboard…!

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Lunchtime; Surf Bay, leopard seal and colleagues

And now, given the title of this blog, it would be rude of me not to tell you about  my first expedition beyond Stanley; a trip to Bertha’s Beach to find penguins! Having gained permission from the landowner, I set out with Neil Golding, one of my lovely work colleagues, and a stranded Foreign and Commonwealth Office representative (the Airbridge was delayed for two days due to strong winds) in my, by now, trusty Shogun.  The colony is ‘close’ to the military base, so the first hour of the journey was on the same crazy road I described in my first post. The last 15 minutes was off-road, which included fording a river. Parked up, we then had nearly an hour’s walk along the beach to find the colony. So, those strong winds I mentioned earlier? They were blowing at 35-40mph. To say we were sand-blasted would be a slight understatement; I’m sure some people would have paid a fortune for such a facial treatment back in London! But it was worth every painful step when the pungent smell of fishy-poo hit us… and there they were. Gentoo penguins!

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Gentoo penguins relaxing after a hard days feeding at sea

I cannot describe the sense of joy, wonder and excitement I felt seeing these extraordinary birds close-up, so will let the photos do the talking for me on this occasion.

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Penguins! Blissfully happy, despite the 35mph winds!

Some penguins were still arriving back on the beach after a day at sea feeding, but by the time we were ready to leave they were all pretty much back on dry land. As we walked down the beach however, this straggler made us all laugh as it emerged right in front of us, panicked and waddled flat-out to join its mates!

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Wait for me! Gentoo penguin late back from ‘work’!

After a white-knuckle drive home in the dark, but still grinning inanely, I decided a hot shower and early night were in order. Having scrubbed the remaining sand from my face,  I poured shampoo into my hand to tackle my equally gritty hair. And then it happened. Clunk. Remember that electricity system? I had somehow missed the ‘you have two pounds worth of electricty left’ warning alarm and was left in the dark, soaking wet and soapy, to work out how to use the pre-paid card in the meter. After five attempts  I finally got the ‘punching-in’ action right, and was able to carry on!

 

Heading South

So much has happened in the last few weeks, it’s hard to know where to start; to paraphrase Julie Andrews, I guess the beginning is a very good place! Having dreamed of visiting the South Atlantic since a small child, I was beyond excited to be offered the chance to live and work in the Falkland Islands for 20 months. Weeks of frantic preparation culminated in my life stuffed into three large (and as it turned out overweight) bags and a small storage locker.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7babThose of you that know me well will not be surprised to know that when said bags were significantly over the generous 54kg allowance, priority was given to my dive kit and artisanal gin!

I’ve travelled and lived all over the world but, with all of us getting older and knowing there would be nearly 8,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean between us, saying goodbye to my wonderful, supportive, parents at RAF Brize Norton was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I definitely didn’t pack enough tissues! For those of you wondering, the RAF flight (known as the Airbridge) is much like most commercial flights. But with more food, and less alcohol. In fact NO alcohol! The journey was a long and tedious 20 hours, but broken up by a welcome fuel-stop at Cape Verde. As we started to descend, I finally began to get excited as the beautiful, barren, and snow-laden islands unfolded beneath me.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7baaDriving from Mount Pleasant Airbase into Stanley in the dusk was quite surreal. The landscape, so familiar from documentaries, was even more spectacular than I anticipated. The road was equally memorable; nearly 40 miles of mostly un-tarmaced road, covered in snow and ice and pock-marked with what can only be described as mini-craters! Stanley was a very welcome sight!

Taken straight to my new house, I was left to unpack and make myself a brew; my new land-lady had left tea, milk, a can of soup, bread and butter for me. This small but thoughtful act of kindness was an early indication of life here in the Falkland Islands. Our superbly kind office manager met me at the house to make sure I was ok, and to explain the quirks of living on a remote island in the middle of the South Atlantic. You do not have an electricity account, for example; it is supplied by punching a pre-paid card into your meter. More on this in my next blog! Waking up the following morning, I revelled in my new surroundings. The views from my house are simply stunning. This photo from my bedroom window shows ‘The Narrows’ – the strait which leads into the large inlet on which Stanley is built.

5BBuGvatQ3yVLNcT+XjiMw_thumb_7bacMy first day involved setting up a bank account, ordering my phone and internet connection (£75 a month for 12,000 MB!) and changing ownership for my ‘new’ Mitsubishi Shogun (Loretta, formerly known as Stan!). My colleague, who I had agreed to purchase the car from, had told me there was a crack in the windscreen. This turned out to be a Falkland Island-style crack – taking up most of the windscreen! There is no MOT requirement here and, as the roads are so atrocious, this is pretty standard for most of the cars you see. Incidentally, 98% of all cards on the road are 4x4s; it’s landie-heaven! Driving home along the shore-line, flocks of geese were grazing on the side of the road, petrels (I’m not up on species yet!) were soaring majestically above and the sun was setting the sky ablaze. I think I’m going to like it here!

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7badThe South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) office, conjoined with the British Antarctic Survey office.