An unusual sight awaits us at the edge of a rockhopper colony on Pebble Island, just off the north coast of West Falklands. It is a leucistic rockhopper. Unlike the thousands of other penguins surrounding it, this one is a pale golden color with just a tinge of yellow in its eyebrows, the result of a lack of cells capable of making pigment.
Pebble is our first stop on Falkland Islands adventure. As our FIGAS plane approaches, we fly over the “Settlement,” as the collection of 5-6 houses is known. One of these, the Pebble Island Lodge, will be our home for the next three days.
Once the farm manager’s office (Pebble is a fully functioning privately owned sheep farm), the two-story green and white, five-bedroom structure, sits on a narrow isthmus overlooking the South Atlantic. From the lounge with its floor-to-ceiling windows, you can sit in enormous stuffed armchairs, and ponder nature whilst sipping a glass of wine. As is the case for all the places we stay on the Falkland Islands, the drinks come from an “honesty” bar. You take what you want and sign for it. Interestingly, there is never any abuse of the system. But then this is a way of life on the islands. There are no locks on doors, and people leave their vehicles parked with the keys in the ignition.
We eat our meals, family style, with the 5-6 other guests. Considering the challenge of having to import everything, our hosts produce three delicious meals a day plus a “smoko,” as afternoon tea is known on the Falkland Islands. The term is a legacy from the sheep shearers who would stop their work for a cup of tea. A “smoko” on the islands is usually an elaborate affair with freshly brewed tea, home-made cookies and cakes, and sandwiches.
We spend three days exploring the 19-mile long by 4.5mile wide island whose name comes from the translucent, semi-precious agate stones that you can find on some of the beaches. Evidence of the 1982 Conflict between Britain and Argentina is still scattered around the island, including a memorial to HMS Coventry, which sank 15 kilometers off the island, and one to the pilots of a shot-down Argentinian Lear Jet. Bits of airplane wreckage can also be seen around the small airstrip, the remains of 11 Argentinian aircraft destroyed during an SAS raid on the island.
Since there are no roads and a Land Rover is required to explore, it takes time to travel around with a guide, over the boggy terrain. After about 45 minutes of bouncing, we reach a vast colony of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins at the top of a slope west of the settlement. A single King Penguin regally strolls through the chattering masses to reach the water below. Off the coast, a pod of Peele’s dolphins surfs through the waves. Further down the beach, an enormous rookery of rockhoppers and imperial shags covers the sides of a steep cliff. Spend a few hours lying on the grass watching them, and a whole society emerges. Parents clamber up and down cliffs to provide food for the chicks; numbers of chicks cluster together in creches under the watchful eye of one or two adults while their parents go to sea; a thieving rockhopper hops furtively from nest to nest, collecting rocks to take back to his own, provoking angry challenges; chicks dive down the throats of the parents, feeding on the regurgitated squid. Everywhere cheeping, squeaking, calling. It is a very noisy, smelly place. Thousands of birds create large amounts of guano!
It is also where you see the circle of life and the cruelty of nature. Numerous skuas, Southern Giant Petrels, Turkey Vultures and gulls prowl the edges of the colony looking for bits of dropped food or swooping down to steal an egg from a distracted rockhopper, or worse, a young chick. We see one pair of rockhoppers almost keeping vigil over the remains of their young chick, soon to become a meal for the ruffians waiting nearby.
On the other side of the island, waterfowl and wading birds including nesting grebes, ducks and geese, and the shy, black-necked swans fill the freshwater ponds. In the summer there are chicks out for a swim, carefully shepherded by anxious parents keeping an eye out for birds of prey.
Along the southeastern shores, gigantic waves batter the towering cliffs, rolling across the South Atlantic from Antarctica. It is a stormy, windy day, and we watch as a cruise ship plods by, bucking up and down on the crests of the waves, its bow disappearing at times. We are very happy to be on solid ground even though gale force winds make it difficult to stand upright. It doesn’t seem to have any effect on the southern giant petrels and albatrosses that soar on the currents nearby.
It is at a rookery on these cliff tops that we spot our leucistic friend, hanging out on a nest near the edge of the colony. Apparently, he/she has been here for several years, mingling with the rest of the colony. We feel very privileged to have seen this rare creature.
In the Falklands, there is a saying that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes, and it will change. This is, indeed, the case. After experiencing a solid gale for about an hour, when we reach Elephant Beach, it is sunny and generally clear. This enormous 4-mile long swath of white sand with blue-green water looks more like the Caribbean than the South Atlantic. But make no mistake, the water is frigid!
Flocks of Magellanic and Blackish oystercatchers run along the water’s edge. On the beach, enormous sand dunes covered with grass, are home to variable hawks, gulls, and meadowlarks. If you walk through the dunes, you might find the enormous bleached bones of whales that have washed ashore over the years.
What is most striking about Pebble Island (and indeed the rest of the Falklands) is the utter solitude. There are at most 15-20 people on this 22,000-acre island. For most of the day, we do not see another individual. We are utterly alone with thousands of animals. Wow!