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  • Hazel Prior

Jan 25th - 26th


It is almost a culture shock to find ourselves in a town again, although Stanley is hardly a metropolis! Our wander around took us to the cathedral, Government House, several war memorials and the museum. The museum is a treasure trove of fascinating insights, especially the parts about Antarctic explorers and the moving accounts of experiences during the 1982 war. But the gift shops are mostly penguin-centric and even the local newspaper is named after our favourite bird!

We leapt at our last chance to see actual penguins: a trip to Gypsy Cove and Yorke Bay. However, today was the fated day of the 3 cruise ships so everywhere was suddenly milling with people. People! We are simply not used to them any more! We jostled along with them, gazing down on this idyllic beach that was all fenced off and guarded by penguin wardens because of the breeding colonies.

Yorke Bay is the second, much longer beach, and for years it was closed off too, due to mines laid during the Argentine occupation. Luckily the penguins were light enough to walk over them safely and remained unharmed. The mines have been cleared recently, so at last the Falklanders can enjoy this local beauty spot again. And beautiful it is, with miles of pale, smooth sands, rocky headlands, windswept dunes and views to the other islands across the glittering water.


Kings, gentoos and Magellanics were roaming about the shoreline, much to the thrill of our fellow human visitors. However, the cruise ship tourists had to head back by early afternoon so Ursula and I were left alone with the sea, sand and bird population, in our element again.

As always the gentoos entertained us with their food chases and the kings dazzled us with their sleek, shiny silver and yellow plumage. The ones that were moulting seemed self-conscious about their relative tattiness... but that's probably just me anthropomorphising. It's hard not to with penguins. Of course they have their own special penguin agendas that we know nothing about, but their interactions (whether it's flirting, competing, squabbling or nurturing their young) are reminiscent of our own. And their feet, beaks, eyes and flippers are so very expressive; utter riches for a writer's imagination.


Penguins are fabulous models for a photographer, too, since, unlike most wildlife, they're not camera-shy. Bursting with natural bravado and curiosity, they'll come right up to you and pose willingly. I'm thrilled with the photos and vids I've managed on my iphone (only a small percentage posted here) but you should see Ursula's array, some of which will contribute to her 'Mission Penguin' book, out next year. It will be a must for all penguin fans.


As we scrambled over the dunes I looked back at the dramatic contours of the Falklands with a pang at leaving it all behind. Still, I have finally seen penguins in the wild! Whatever the future holds, I'm carrying inside me a great glow of gratitude for the extraordinary time we've had here.



 

A postscript as I type this final blog up from my study back in the UK on a dark February evening...


'Remember the Penguins' was a little catchphrase I used in my novel, Call Of The Penguins. It's an exhortation to follow the penguins' example, to adopt their qualities of resilience and good cheer and to keep 'waddling on' no matter what life throws at you. After such an amazing trip, I think I can safely say for Ursula and myself that the two of us will always, ALWAYS 'remember the penguins!'



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  • Hazel Prior

Jan 23rd - 24th


If I said: "Think of a penguin", you'd probably picture it against a background of Antarctic snow and ice. Here, however, we've seen penguins on sunlit beaches, craggy clifftops and even in moorland burrows, among the sheep. Now we've garnered another memory: penguins among the tussac grass.


Like many of the Falkland Islands, Sea Lion Island used to be a sheep farm, but it's now been converted a National Nature Reserve. Without the grazing, there's a proliferation of the native tussac grass which grows everywhere in coarse, tall clumps, so you never quite know when you're going to come across a penguin.


We were delivered here by a local flight, and now we're now staying in relative luxury, in a lovely lodge along with a few other wildlife enthusiasts. Our first priority was to see the rockhoppers. There's a particular spot on Sea Lion Island where you can observe their incredible prowess in the activity that got them their name: rock-hopping. Our kind hostess, Sarah, gave us a lift to the spot.


And here it is. You stand at a kind of corner in the cliffs, looking directly down. Way below you, the sea thunders and swirls, and hurls handfuls of penguins at the vertical rock face. Unbelievably, and with perfect timing, they somehow catch a hold and jump upwards on their strong feet, seeming to defy gravity.


In the second picture, with the help of my phone's zoom lens, you can see two penguins in the water, about to make the leap. Others are climbing up the sheer sides.


After much gawping, gasping, photographing and videoing, we walked the twisty paths through the tussac grass toward the beaches. Gentoos waddled in the dunes and gathered in great numbers among the heaps of seaweed.



I rather like the monochromes of this picture. But as time progressed the sun showed up, transforming everything and outlining hundreds of penguins in its rays.

The sky became tangerine, then ablaze with fiery reds; Ursula's cue to get that 'penguins at sunset' photograph she'd been craving.


It was just as well we made the most of that evening, since the day after it rained. And rained. And rained. Although not so great for us, the weather was good news for the local flora and fauna. Time and time again we've been told that the islands are drying out and we've seen many ponds empty of water, deprived of any life.


When we finally got outside, swathed in our waterproofs, we headed for the shoreline again. As well as the penguins the island has terns, snipe and a plethora of other birds. We were warned about a certain caracara who had a habit of stealing people's hats. And we narrowly missed being killed (maybe a slight exaggeration) by an angry skua. These residents were much gentler.

Like the penguins, steamer ducks have lost the ability to fly, but they seem pretty happy about it. The elephant seals indulged in the occasional play-fight in the sea, but mainly they dozed.


As the rain eased off, we were granted yet another glowing evening, with extraordinary cloud formations. Naturally we hot-footed it to the beach, where more penguins were rushing in and out of the sea. Photo opportunity! The trick is to catch them silhouetted against the reflected sheen on the sand, but of course, they keep popping up behind you when you want them to pop up in front of you. I must say, I really enjoyed the game. I think they did, too. I'm sure they were laughing at us.




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  • Hazel Prior

Jan 22nd- 23rd


"Lucky again!"

This has become our motto, and with good reason.

We are now at a place called 'The Neck' on Saunders Island, a spectacular peninsular between two hills, with glorious beaches on either side. The stretch in the middle is pretty much covered in penguins. And I have to admit, gazing out of the window and seeing them scattered across the land below, I had a proud (OK, possibly delusional) 'my people' moment.

From the opposite hill, to the left of my hat, you might just see our accommodation in the distance, a self-catering shack which can sleep 8 (in 4 bunk beds) but which Ursula and I, by chance, have all to ourselves. Plus the sea, beaches, surrounding countryside, ducks, cormorants, oystercatchers, albatrosses and, of course, penguins. Plus sunshine. No wonder there's a big, cheesy grin on my face!

While Ursula, camera poised, was patiently waiting for a miniature king penguin to emerge from the safe haven between its mother's feet, I had a thorough explore. This place is paradise. The colours, the brightness, the sculpted rocks and the wind-hewn shapes on the sand are extraordinary.

So are 'my people'. Here are a few of them: A rockhopper atop his special stone, who was as interested in me as I was in him; a gentoo frolicking in the clear, cool waves, and three jaunty kings dancing with synchronised flipper action.

One scruffy little gentoo chick had me in stitches. Every time I tried to photograph the trio of kings, who were posing beautifully, he scurried in front of them with triumphant squawks and perfect photo-bomber timing.


There are plenty of Magellanics here too. I love their particular quirk of going down on all fours, their flippers acting as front legs as they scuttle into the sea like turtles.


We dashed back to base briefly for sandwiches and dashed out again to make the most of being here. As the sun lowered toward the horizon, the beach shone like a mirror. Gulls wheeled overhead, their cries carried far in the wind. Penguin chicks were scampering about everywhere, chirruping with glee. Their parents' plumage glowed in the evening light and twinkled with droplets like jewels as they came ashore. Penguins gathered together, clusters of little, beaky silhouettes against the sky. We were utterly mesmerised as we wandered among them.


It was an evening of sheer magic, one of those times that fills you through and through with awe at the extraordinary wonders of this world.


In the morning we climbed up to the rockhopper colonies in the clefts of the hill. They do choose to nest in the most precarious places. It was a treat to see albatrosses again, this time amongst the cormorants and penguins in a giant jigsaw of black and white against the blue-green sea. Are these birds able to appreciate their sublimely beautiful home? I hope so. They certainly looked happy.




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