Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands

Posted on October 24, 2010

The hotel says driver will come pick me up at 7:45 for 8:00 flight. That's not how we do it at home, but when in Rome. And at 7:45 the taxi is there. Airport is 10 minutes away, so I'm there 5 minutes before flight. Tiny airstrip, it's the local Stanley airport. I have to put all my luggage on scale, and then stand on scale so they can get my weight. The planes are Briton Norman Islander and have 8 seats, counting the pilot. There's a family of Kelpers (Falkland Islanders are called Kelpers, because the surrounding seas are full of kelp). Their 10 year old daughter sees one of the pilots and says, "oh don't tell me you're flying the plane today." 'No" he replies, "we've got a real pilot for your plane." So they get on one plane, and I get on the other, with the fake pilot. He's named Paul, and they seat me next to him. Am I the co-pilot?

Its like being in a car, with the big window and small seats. There is needless to say, no in flight meal, but lots of in flight entertainment as Paul and I have a conversation about life in the Falklands and his career as pilot. FIGAS is not a money maker, but an essential service to get people around the islands. This is how doctors see patients, and how those in remote settlements get around the islands. The wind is blowing so fiercely that it would likely ground a jet in the USA, but Paul takes off, and the 40 minute flight is calm, and the views great as we fly so close to the ground. I'm a pretty calm flier, and this flight gives me no cause for the jitters.

We land at the airstrip on Sea Lion, and Jenny the lodge manager is there to greet me. I walk to the lodge from the strip, wind howling, and enter into a summer cabin type building. It's the only building on the entire island. Sea Lion once was a giant sheep ranch, and the family that owned it sold it and now a lodge operates there, the only inhabited building on the island, 2 miles across and 5 miles long. No more sheep, just a handful of guests and a 200,000 penguins, plus other cool birds (you really have to be into this stuff; wildlife to want to come here). And sea lions, but more impressive, elephant seals. Jenny has 8 other guests, and they are all fine and interesting people, from all over. One has to be a bit well, is obsessive the word, about wildlife and out of the way places to come all this way, so the other guests and I really hit it off. I'm with my people.

Sea Lion Lodge does not skimp on the food, They've a Chilean chef to cook it all and he even grows some of it in a garden surround by a hedge of Monterrey cypress.

A day late and a dollar short, the past few days the weather was perfect they tell me, but now its gale force winds blowing. There's a gentoo penguin colony that can be seen from the dining room, but it seems like cheating to watch penguins from the dinner table, out of the ordinary as it is. So I bundle up, and go outside. This is how the Flying Nun or Mary Poppins must have felt, like any second they'd be airborne. It's not so cold, about 55, but the infamous wind chill makes it miserable. However the amazing penguins and other fearless birds (upland geese, ruddy headed geese, giant petrels, turkey vultures, Johnny Rook caracaras, and tussock birds), all dancing around your feet, as though they were cats or dogs begging for attention negates the discomfort of it all. On the beach like giant 12 foot sausages are the male elephant seals, big tubes of blubber, and their harems of equally rotund females, and then the young, only 5' long, and again like tubes of fat. But then, it you lived in water that never got above 40 degrees you'd need the blubber. There's not a svelte penguin to be seen either. The elephant seals hardly move a muscle, and one can approach within inches of them. Jenny says to keep my distance, she thinks 10 feet is enough. I disregard her advice, and get within 5 feet. They seem to ignore me. Later she tells me a photographer from National Geographic last year had his camera ruined by a too close encounter, and another tourist got bitten in the butt by an elephant seal. Maybe I was just plain dumb lucky. Dumb luck has worked for me in the past.

Sea Lion Lodge does not skimp on the food, They've a Chilean chef to cook it all and he even grows some of it in a garden surround by a hedge of Monterrey cypress. The only trees on the island, all leaning precariously due to constant wind, but apparently affording enough protection to grow a few vegetables. After lunch Jenny takes me out in the jeep with the 3 Dutch film makers who are here to film their travel show. The woman Flor, the star of the show is friendly enough, perhaps a bit too impressed with her star status in Holland. The 2 guys, camera man and producer a bit friendlier. I'm not sure if they want me with them but I've been invited by Jenny and as the day progresses, I see they are pleasant company, my reservations evaporate. They have to get out into the wind and angle for shots, leaving me to converse with Jenny. You all get to read about my stay here, and not wait months for it to come out on TV as you would for the Dutch version.

The day progresses like this: look at wildlife, eat, look at more wildlife, eat, sleep, wake up for breakfast and start all over. The next day the wind still howls, and the penguins are as fascinating as the previous day, so I'm out in the elements again to commune with penguins and elephant seals. There are 3 species of penguin. Those seen from the dining room are gentoo penguins. About 2.5 feet tall, white below and black on top. Though as they sand erect, better to say white in front, black on the back sides. One of the pair sits on the egg, while the other goes to sea to fish. As not all have yet laid eggs, there are many idle penguins. No fear of humans, as we're not traditional predators. Scattered all around are the 2 foot Magellanic penguins, again white in front, black on the back, with a band of black under the throat. They make their nest in underground burrows, and stand at the entrance, one of the pair guarding. Get too close, (about 3 feet) and the guard bird descends into the burrow, and peers out, cocking his/her head to and fro. The advice is to not put your hand in a burrow if you want to get it back in its usable and recognizable form. Rock hopper penguins are the other species. Jenny takes us to their colonies. Smaller than the others, about 18 inches tall, you guessed right, white below and black on the back, with the double Mohawk of yellow feathers sticking up from from either side of the head. True to their name, they hop vertically up the rocks from ocean to their nests. Maybe the cutest of all penguins, but its a tough call. They are all, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, adorable.