More so than any other place we visit in the Falklands, Bleaker Island can only be described as ‘windswept.’ It is the kind of wind that rips your cap from your head, pulls your face skin back around your ears and forces you to walk almost doubled over if you want to get anywhere. Perhaps this is why there are so many shipwrecks here. But the island certainly has its charms.
Our FIGAS flight from Sea Lion to Bleaker is quick — a mere 20 minutes to reach this 12 miles long and 1.6-mile wide parcel of land in the South Atlantic. The privately-owned island is under organic sustainable management with sheep and Hereford breeding cows that coexist happily with the wildlife under the watchful eye of owners Mike and Phyll Rendall.
The settlement, which sits at the center of the island, has recently been refurbished, including the Cassard House where we stay (named after the shipwreck of the same name). Constructed in 2011, the four-bedroom guest house has solar-powered heating, triple glazed windows, and a magnificent sunroom. Cecilia, a Chilean chef, prepares the food, which is delicious, while Elaine, the manager, keeps everyone organized.
But as with all the other places in the Falkland Islands, we are here to photograph the wildlife, and we are not disappointed, starting from the beaches to the rocky cliffs, to the freshwater ponds, to the heaths.
Sandy Bay Beach is like something from the Caribbean — white sands, crystal clear blue and turquoise waters — except that instead of sunbathers, it is home to thousands of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins. There are also two lonely King Penguins, looking very forlorn and ragged. Most of the penguins are molting, spending hours pecking deeply into their backs and sides to loosen feathers. The wind whisks all this beautiful down away, collecting it in gullies where it shimmers and shines in the sunlight. Mike muses that if there was a way to collect this soft down, it would produce wonderful pillows!
We sit amongst the Gentoos for some time, watching them plodding across the beach as the sand whips around them. Some of them decide to come over and investigate what we are doing. They gather around, coming closer and closer to us. One actually stops and puts his head on my foot. They are such endearing little creatures!
Sandy Bay Beach is where the cruise ships deposit their passengers to spend a few hours hiking the island and photographing the birds before moving on to the next stop. It is a difficult balance to maintain the needs of the animals with the wants of the tourists but one that Mike has managed successfully. The fees which he charges the cruise companies enable him to keep his operation going. Sustainable tourism meets sustainable wildlife and agricultural management.
Halfway between Sandy Beach and the settlement is an enormous imperial shag colony with thousands of birds nesting in mud cones. It is an active and noisy place. Skuas and gulls patrol the edges, waiting for a moment of inattention to dart in amongst the shags and grab a young chick. Sometimes a group of shags will attack the skua, chasing it off; other times, the skua succeeds in grabbing its prey and flying off, only to be waylaid by other skuas, anxious to share the meal.
Across from the imperial shag rookery are rows of tussac clumps and beyond that, the cliffs overlooking the South Atlantic. These are home to a colony of rockhoppers. A single Macaroni penguin lives here as well; in fact, a closed circuit camera was installed to keep track of it. Unfortunately, during the three days we are on Bleaker, the Macaroni is elsewhere.
At the very far end of the island, juvenile southern petrels are still sitting on their nests. Mike is very protective of the birds and will only take visitors to see them when all danger of the chicks being abandoned by the parents has passed. Petrels have unusual nasal passages that attach to their upper bills, making them look almost prehistoric. There are also some snowy sheathbills around and many caracaras.
Our visit to the freshwater ponds is cut short by the gale force winds that make it almost impossible for us to walk. Nevertheless, by lying down in the grass next to the water, we are able to stabilize the camera enough to take photos of the black-necked swans. They are very shy birds that tend to stay in the middle of the pond, making a good telephoto lens a requirement.
The one unique feature of Bleaker Island that we have not experienced on other islands is the magnificent sunsets. A quick walk from Cassard Lodge takes you to the old docks where imperial shag, gulls, skuas, and other birds prepare to roost. Nearby sits the bleached, reconstructed skeleton of a Minke Whale. As the sun is setting in the west, overhead a full moon lights our way back to the settlement. Magic!