By John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of Vancouver Aquarium

The Falkland Islands are one of those places on earth where you would really need to want to visit, since it’s not on the way to anywhere else. One must either fly there from Chile, or take a boat.

The islands themselves, two large ones (West and East Falkland) with numerous smaller ones, are generally hilly and treeless except for some trees planted by settlers in the Capitol – Port Stanley. Charles Darwin remarked on the appearance of this place when the HMS Beagle visited in 1833 to map the islands: “The whole landscape has an air of desolation,” he mused. The rolling hills are covered by a variety of grasses, such as the giant hummock grass, which provides protected spaces for penguins and other ground nesting birds.

The Falkland Islands now have about 400 km of roads, and a ferry between the two big islands. Getting around requires either a boat, or a four-wheel drive vehicle. The joke here is that there are more Land Rovers (this is a piece of Britain after all) than there are people. People homesteaded various remote parts of the islands over the past 100+ years, and they are used to the remoteness and isolation. We visited two family-sized remote farmsteads, and found them much as one might find a remote homestead on the prairies. Without exception, everyone we met wants life to go on just the way it has, and is today.

A variety of birds are endemic to the Falklands (seen only here). We first went ashore on the western tip of West Falkland to West Point Island (one of the 600+ small islands), hiking over a peninsula or ridge to observe a bird nesting colony for both Albatross and the Rockhopper Penguins. The Albatross – in this case, the Black-browed Albatross – is a strikingly handsome large bird, mostly white with a black line over its eye (hence the name) and brown wings. We’ve been seeing them at sea wheeling just above the water as we approached the Falklands. Like most of the 15-plus albatross species, the Black-browed has very long but narrow wings.

The Black-browed Albatross chick, still in its down coat. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium.

The Black-browed Albatross chick, still in its down coat. Photo credit: Vancouver Aquarium.

Most Albatross, including the Black-browed, live at sea except when they come ashore to a breeding and chick rearing area (we call them rookeries) to mate, lay eggs, incubate them, and then undertake the arduous task of feeding the young. They fly out to sea and catch the fish they need, mostly by flying just above the surface of the water while they scoop up fish with their bill. Then they fly back to the rookery, making a semi-controlled, but sometimes remarkably uncontrolled semi-crash landing before feeding their chick.

Because of the way Albatross fish, they are often fatally caught when they pick up the baited hooks long-line commercial fishing boats use. As a group, Albatross live a long time and are slow to reproduce, resulting in dramatically reduced populations from being caught in open ocean commercial fishing gear. Several organizations are trying to do something about reducing this problem.

The other species sharing the same muddy rookery among the giant grass clumps was the Rockhopper Penguins. These foot-tall birds do just as the Albatross do, but because penguins don’t fly, parents waddle down to the ocean, dive in and catch dinner. They then come back, call for their chick, and when they get the right answer, waddle over and disgorge the krill or whatever they have brought back directly into the chick’s mouth.

With both bird species, the chicks are covered with down feathers when they are born. They must grow very rapidly (hence the demand on the parents for food) and they must molt (shed their feathers for a new set) before fall so they can go to sea just like their parents do. A half-down, half-feathered bird of either species is certainly comical to look at. We sat on the hillside looking down at the rookeries for over an hour, totally enthralled – even those who claim to not like bird watching! We will all remember both the overwhelming smell (the parents are feeding them seafood after all), and the din of the calls between parents and chicks. This was the first large rookery we will get to visit on this trip.

In the next blog post, I will tackle Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands.

John Nightingale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, is currently on a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to Antarctica with a group of explorers. He is providing regular updates during the journey.

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