Precarious and Playful
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.