It is mid-October 2017 and I am embarking on a 21-day ‘cruise’ from Montevideo to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, South Shetland Islands, and the Antarctic Peninsula, returning via the Drake Passage to Ushuaia. The word ‘cruise’ may conjure up images of Pina coladas and palm trees, but in reality it will be more like mountains, ice, king penguins, elephant seals, albatross, prions and other seabirds of this region, and lots of ocean. I take three different types of seasickness medicines, just in case, and I definitely won’t be downing Pina coladas! Oh, there are palm trees though – they line the esplanade in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which fronts the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
The Falkland Islands
After three days’ sailing from Montevideo, we disembark at West Point on a remote island in the Falklands before trekking through farmland that reminds me of a bleak Scottish moor, complete with bright yellow gorse and swirling mists. At the end of our track we find a colony of rockhopper penguins intermingled with black-browed albatross. It is mating season and these creatures of the high southern latitudes have a very small window in which to find their mate, breed, lay an egg and raise a chick before winter casts its grim veil over all things. Some birds are mating, some quietly nursing an egg. Wind and mating calls mingle here on this wild, lichen-covered rockface.
Our next stop is Saunders Island, one of the many privately-owned islands in the Falklands. As we disembark, Gentoo penguins march up to greet us as though they are fulfilling their official duties. After another wind-blown walk over rolling grassy fields to a wild beach I encounter my first king penguins, complete with year-old chicks almost as big as their parents. Unlike the adults’ steel-grey and white dinner suits, however, the chicks are balls of light brown fluff that reminded early sailors of young lads covered in sticky oakum fibres used to repair leaky boats – hence their nickname ‘oakum boys’.
A lone magellanic penguin stands uncertainly on the beach, shy but determined to join the huddle of birds on the sand dunes. It looks cold and bedraggled and a bit confused by our presence on its beach. A pair of Falkland steamer ducks sit quietly in the tussac grass watching the spectacle of we ‘red jackets’ filing along the sand. At the end of the beach, amidst the roar of surf against rocks, a group of merry rockhopper penguins are doing what they do best: jumping out of churning surf, falling back in, jumping out again, and finally waddling single-file up the slippery rock face whilst mustering as much dignity as they can as they continue to slip and stumble up into the cliffs to dry off.
We spend a few hours in Stanley, the capital – in fact the only town – in the Falklands. This was at the centre of the Falklands War between Argentina and the UK in 1982, and it seems as though the war has never really finished in this tiny staunchly British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean. We set off for a morning stroll around the harbour. I opt for a longer circular walk and amble through tussac grasses along the edge of the harbour, noting warning signs indicating that landmines still lie buried in the beach sands. Back in town – after a detour to the ship to change into dry clothes – we eat lunch in a café before heading off to the sourvenir shops to send a postcard from this British outpost, then end our afternoon with a visit to the local dockyard museum. It is surprisingly informative and well-presented, covering everything from maritime history to the islands’ social life and natural history.
After leaving the Falklands, we finally enter the realm of the Southern Ocean.