West Falkland and Ushuaia for Christmas 2011

Port Stephen – walking, Indian village, penguins (rockhoppers, gentoos, magellanics)

Departing Stanley and on our way to Ushuaia (for Christmas and to prepare for our upcoming Antarctic Peninsula trips) we had planned a couple of days in hand. We had decided that we wanted to try and visit somewhere on the west island of the Falklands, and with a ‘native’ friend from a farm on the southernmost corner recommending that we visit her parents, we headed off to Port Stephen. Only an 18 hour motor sail from Stanley, we arrived to the entrance of the enclosed bay at dawn, greeted by a fog restricting the visibility to about a boat length. We felt our way in using the radar and depth sounder, anchoring off the settlement in time for breakfast.

With the visibility improving we set of in the zodiac to the settlement, tying onto the old jetty and went for a wander around. The first thing that strikes you as you step ashore on West Falkland is how different it is from the East, certainly from my experience limited to within a few miles of Stanley. To start with there is geography! There are hills worthy of the title! The land around is also greener, less like the peaty moorland that characterises the area around Stanley.

After our brief stroll we went in search of the owners of the farm, Peter and Ann. We were aware that it was shearing season and so we started off checking the wool shed. Having not seen a wool shed in the UK, I was surprised by the vast size, easily 400metres long, 200metres wide it was an impressive sight. We found our hosts and were promptly invited for dinner in the farmhouse.

Over a warm, friendly dinner we found out about the inhabitants, the farm (maybe it should be referred to as a station as it covers around 30,000 hectares), the surrounding area and its’ surprising quantity of wildlife, as well as life in such a remote place.

Over the years with mechanisation and the pull of town life, the stations population has dwindled from having 20 or so permanent workers (in the summer the population could more than double with the appearance of the travelling shearers) to just two, with both of them in their late 60’s. The station has retained a similar number of sheep despite the lack of workers, around 10,000 head, which the four visiting shearers managed to complete in just three days.

Opposite the farmhouse on the seaward side of the peninsula that shelters the houses we were told was a penguin colony, a new species to us, one not found in South Georgia or the Antarctic Peninsula, the Rockhopper. We took the zodiac across to a beach nearer the colony and had a wander. From a distance we had seen a strange rock formation, looking like a series of hay stacks the weather beaten rocks are eroded into many strange shapes looking like a perfect child’s playground. Up close it was equally wonderful, the Indian Village as it is known, was a series of sandstone formations, eroded by the salty westerly winds forming lots of nooks and crannies, used by nesting birds, and by us as we scrambled up on to the tops of a few looking and finding the amazing view.

In the lee of one of the rock formations there was a Gentoo penguin colony, one we are familiar with seeing both in South Georgia and on the Antarctic Peninsula. What we found interesting though was that these were completely unused to being visited by people and much more skittish and keen to run away. The penguins we see elsewhere, however much of a wilderness we think they reside in, they are frequently visited by people, either tourists from yachts or cruise ships, or from the scientists who often camp alongside them whilst studying them. These though, if visited at all by people, would also be interrupted by dogs and sheep; maybe it was this which made them much shyer than their Sub-Antarctic brothers.

Carrying along around the coast on the seaward side looking for the Rockhoppers we came across a beach exposed to the predominant westerlies, and strewn with timber and fishing floats. The timber being a slight surprise given that the southern part of South America, certainly the areas we visit and the nearest land to the island, has trees but definitely not of the size of these washed up ones.

Eventually, after almost giving up, we came across the colony we were looking for. Climbing out of the crashing surge onto rocks and coming up the steepest part of the hillside around we spotted the train of penguins, hopping up the hillside in their comical way. The Rockhoppers have the same yellow eyebrows as seen on macaroni penguins, although unlike the macaroni’s it isn’t continuous. We sat observing the interactions between the individual penguins, watching them climb up the cliff, or coming close full of intrigue to check us out; for an hour or so we just watched.

Unfortunately that was all the time we had, we had a short window of fair weather in which time we had to reach Ushuaia and start preparing for the joint excitements of Christmas and our first Antarctic charter of the season. I won’t go into details of the Christmas celebrations, partly because I can’t remember all, partly because I shouldn’t incriminate…!! It was a fun period and great seeing friends again.

About David

David Roberts is the skipper of sailing yacht Pelagic, a charter expedition yacht working in Antarctica, South Georgia, the Falkland Islands, Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn areas.
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