Look out the windows of the Lodge on Sea Lion Island and the Gentoo penguin colony is so close you can almost touch it. Everything on Sea Lion is close — it is one of the smallest and most compact islands in the archipelago but it has the richest diversity of wildlife including 6,000 Gentoo Penguins, 1,000 rockhoppers, Magellanic penguins, elephant seals, dolphins, orcas, geese, gulls, skuas and over 40 species of breeding birds. It is an extremely rewarding location for photography.
Our FIGAS flight from Weddell Island unloads us only a few feet from the Lodge, the only purposely built ecotourism accommodation in the Falklands. It can accommodate 20 people in comfortable rooms with ensuite bathrooms, a huge lounge and dining room, as well as a bar. There are five staff who take care of you, including Luis, the Chilean chef, whose chocolate cake served for Smoko is well known even beyond the islands.
As the island is only 5 miles long and a mile wide, we can walk everywhere but the Lodge managers are also happy to provide a ride to the furthest point. We take advantage of this offer to reach the king cormorant colony on the cliff tops.
As enormous breakers from the Antarctic smash into the cliff base with a thundering sound, we spend several hours photographing the birds. The colony is divided into two sectors — nests with chicks and parents on one side, non-breeding birds on the other. They stand along the edge of the cliff before launching into the wind.
The rain and surf have left pools of water on the top of the cliffs. They are either bright pink from the krill in the bird’s excrement or green from the algae; and … very smelly!
As we hike back towards the settlement, we pass a small rockhopper colony on the top of an impossibly steep cliff. Many more birds used to nest here but a rogue wave, 100 feet high, smashed over the top of the cliff and washed them away. The colony is slowly reestablishing itself.
The waves also damaged the nearby memorial to the sailors on the HMS Sheffield who lost their lives when the ship was sunk 40 miles offshore by an Argentinian Exocet missile during the 1982 conflict.
Some of the best stands of tussock grass in the Falklands line the cliff tops. Sea lions like to slumber amongst them so prudence is required as you hike along. At one spot we look down into a small tidal pool where mother and baby sea lions are gathered, surrounding an alpha male.
A mother sea lion swims back to the shore, calling as she navigates through the giant kelp beds. She is able to identify her offspring amongst the many on the beach and immediately begins to nurse it. The pups instinctively know how to swim, and we watch as some of them play in the small tidal pools.
As we sit on the cliff tops, several striated caracaras appear and head for our backpacks. Before we realize what has happened, one of these super intelligent birds has managed to open the zipper and is getting ready to dive in for our picnic lunch! Although they are little thieves, these birds are very endearing. We are tempted to let the bird continue its efforts but the thought of not eating until dinner is not a pleasant one. It takes a lot of energy to explore these islands!
Despite our best efforts, we are unable to photograph an orca. These enormous creatures patrol the waters along Sea Lion Island, waiting for the opportunity to grab a young sea lion or perhaps a baby elephant seal.
The elephant seals prefer a rocky beach just down from the Lodge. When we visit, there are only some males left, waiting to finish molting before they return to the water. The elephant seals have been studied for over 18 years by Italian Doctors Filippo Galimberti and Simona Sanvito. We find these dedicated researchers on the beach early every morning, also keeping an eye out for orcas which are part of their studies.
Not far from the Lodge are several freshwater ponds where we find Chiloe Widgeons, grebes, ducks and geese of various types. Many of the birds have young ones.
On the sand dunes across from the airstrip, colonies of South American terns and Dolphin Gulls are nesting. The terns are particularly fierce if you get too close, zipping up and dive-bombing to scare you away. Photographing them can be a challenge.
Of the accessible islands in the Falklands, Sea Lion has it all. If you only have a limited time to spend in the archipelago, then this is the island where you will see the most species of wildlife in fairly luxurious accommodations. However, you will not experience them alone. There will be other humans around too!