“Welome to Weddell,” Jane says as she picks us up on the grass strip where a FIGAS flight from Saunders Island has deposited us. “You have just doubled the population!” This on an island the size of Malta (which has 400,000 inhabitants), and we are the only guests.
At 63,000 acres, Weddell is the largest offshore island in the Falklands. It is home to the usual species of Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, both species of caracara, variable hawks. albatrosses, petrels, skuas, numerous small birds, and sea lions. However, some unique inhabitants including the Patagonian Grey Fox, wild horses and, improbably, a reindeer, also live here.
“How did they get here?” you may ask. Well, a previous owner of the island in the 1930s imported several species of exotic animals, of which only the foxes are left. You can see them wandering around the island, unafraid of human inhabitants (there aren’t any to threaten them, anyway). The reindeer is a pet from East Falklands that outgrew its surroundings. It likes to hang out with the wild horses, descendants of domesticated ones once used as transportation on the island.
Our home for the next two nights is the cozy Sea View Cottage in the settlement on the edge of Gull Harbor, the beds made up with impeccably ironed duvets that look very inviting. Freshly baked bread and a tin of home-made biscuits stand in the kitchen, fully equipped for self catering, although we dine in the “Big” house with Jane and her husband, Martin, a gourmet chef, amongst his many other talents. He treats us to such delicacies as squid rings with aioli sauce, risotto with scurvy grass (that we pick during our explorations), roast leg of locally bred lamb and chocolate mousse. His freshly baked bread is so delicious that we take some back to the cottage to have for breakfast with our farm-fresh, just laid, eggs. After 4 days of baked beans on toast, this is heaven!
We spend the next two days exploring just one tiny corner of this immense island. An evening walk to Mark’s Point provides entertainment, watching the Gentoo penguins returning from a day fishing. They porpoise over the waves before popping out of the water onto the beach like champagne corks, feet first. They stop, shake off the water drops and waddle up the slope to the colony. In the evening sunlight, the water glistens on their sleek feathers.
Early the next morning we head out in the Land Rover to Loop Head, in the northeast corner of the island. Along the way, we stop so Martin can point out the various plants and flowers endemic to the island. Unfortunately, we have missed the fields of flowering orchids that grow here, although we do find some clumps of vanilla flowers and collect some scurvy grass for Martin’s evening menu.
At the far end of Loop Head large clumps of tussock grass line the shores. Hidden amongst them are a breeding colony of southern sea lions. We watch as a large male, looking very much like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, with a mane around his face, holds court with his harem. There are a number of young nursing sea lions. We keep our distance since the sea lions can become extremely aggressive if you happen to get between them and the water, and they move surprisingly fast.
Nearby a colony of imperial shags nest in the crevices of the cliffs that soar above the waves, smashing into the rocks below. All around us are old tussock stacks that have been completely eroded by the wind, leaving behind nothing but stumps.
Several scruffy-looking Patagonian Grey foxes, most in various stages of molting, peer up at us. They let us get quite close to photograph. There is some pressure from the authorities in Stanley to get rid of this “introduced” species on the grounds that they threaten the birds; however, we learn that analysis of their droppings shows their main food to be insects, rodents and even berries. They do not appear to constitute any real threat to the birdlife of Weddell.
Along the shores with white sandy beaches and blue-green waters, Commerson’s and Peale’s dolphins play in the surf. Martin comments that there seem to be fewer around than usual and wonders whether they are all back at Gull Harbor. In fact, when we return for dinner, there are about 10 of them gliding through the shallows outside the kitchen window.
We absolutely love our time on Weddell Island. It is a quiet, peaceful place with wonderful hosts, fantastic views in all directions and incredible wildlife. We decide that this would be the perfect retreat to spend a few months writing a novel. Who knows? We’ll just have to go back!