Friday, December 19, 2008

When we got up this morning, there was brilliant sunshine, the water was calm, and we could see land. So this was a good start. Out on deck, we could see some penguins in the water, and there were blue-eyed and rock shags flying about. Our first excursion was West Point Island, one of the more remote islands in the Falklands, presumably on the western edge. We dropped anchor in a nice bay, and then took zodiacs to a jetty near the beach. At the beach there was a Kelp Goose, and a few Striated Caracaras.

From there we walked up a hill (not too steep), and then started walking across the island. The scenery reminded us quite a bit of Rapa Nui (specifially the part we saw on Valentine's Day in 2006), with no trees, and lots of green rolling hills with views out to the ocean. The walk lasted about 30-45 minutes, and ended almost at the other end of the island.

On the western edge of the island there were enormous breeding colonies for black-browed albatrosses and also rockhopper penguins. They were everywhere, and were not segregated, but instead interspersed among one another like a chess board. The reported numbers are something like 5,000 breeding pairs of Black-browed Albatrosses. Indeed, it used to be known as Albatross Island. There was supposedly a 5 meter rule in place, but this was enforced about as well as the 7 meter rule we had with the Gorillas in Rwanda. One issue that came up (and would have come up even if the rule was enforced) was that every now and then there would be a penguin just lying in the path, so we had to be careful not to step on them.

The penguins made almost all of the noises, with the albatrosses being mostly quiet, mostly. There was some interaction between the penguins and the albatrosses, but not much. Crystal saw an albatross getting in cheap shots against three penguins that were fighting nearby - biting the backsides of the penguins facing the other way. Others reported seeing penguins picking on albatrosses. Justin saw a penguin and an albatross getting into it, but he couldn't tell who initiated the fight. On the flipside, we did see two albatrosses "greeting" one another. Nothing as intricate as we have seen on TV, but at least it was something. The penguins really didn't like it when another penguin came into their area - they would stretch their flippers back and screech.

Both species had chicks, with some of the penguin chicks being a decent size. The albatross chicks were covered up by their parents most of the time, but occasionally we could get a good view, such as for feeding. Near the end of our excursion we were lucky enough to see one of the many albatrosses take off. It got up and spread its wings several times, then putting them back at its side, over and over. Finally, it walked over near the edge of its rock, flapped its wings just a couple of times, and then was gone over the cliff on the western edge.


That seemed like an opportune time to leave, so we started heading back to the zodiac landing location. We soon stopped, however, for multiple reasons. Justin checked out a rockhopper penguin egg that was shaking around. He was hoping it would hatch in front of him, but no luck. (Only later did we find out it can take up to 3 days for a penguin egg to hatch). Meanwhile, while Justin was watching the egg, Crystal was watching an albatross take multiple "test flights" before finally taking off. The albatross would walk up a hill, then turn around and start flapping its wings, at which point it would go down the hill, but not take off. The bird did this 4 or 5 times before finally succeeding. We had never noticed before that the albatrosses have black markings around their eyes, making them appear as if they were constantly glaring. The rockhoppers, meanwhile, have a strikingly red eye.

On the walk back was largely uneventful, but we did see another striated caracara. The zodiac ride back was wet, but not too bad. We figured it would give us practice for when conditions might be really bad (such as in South Georgia).

At the afternoon briefing for Carcass island, we met two more Americans (a couple from South Carolina), so apparently there are 6 Americans. On Carcass island, shortly after we started walking around we came to a Gentoo penguin path, and they stopped when they saw us in their way. We gradually backed away (from both the left and right side) until there was enough room for them to feel comfortable passing. When they did, it was like they were on a red carpet, as all of us were taking pictures of them from both sides. Those were the only Gentoos we would see - all of the other penguins were Magellanic.

The Magellanic penguins reminded us very much of the Jackass (African) penguins we saw in Cape Town last year. The markings were similar, the pink eyes were similar, and they even made the donkey-sounding noise from which the Jackass penguin got its name. Above on the left are photos we took of a Jackass penguin last year in Cape Town, and above on the rights are photos we took of a Magellanic penguin today.

While not as good as the morning trek, the afternoon treck nonetheless showed off quite a few birds. There were Striated Caracaras (who seemed to like being photographed), Caracara chicks, Oystercatchers, ducks and geese. But mostly we would see Magellanic penguins here and there, and then we'd try to see how close we could creep without scaring them back into their burrows. Ironically, the closest we got was at the very end, when Justin was coming to the small settlement where we finished our walk. There was a lone penguin - apparently lost - looking around for his friends, and calling for them. Perhaps because he was more concerned with that than he was with humans, he basically walked right up to Justin without any hesitation. At the settlement, there was an enormous spread of cookies, scones, and other desserts - enough to feed 300 people, not the 50 we had. Justin tried to do his part - he had about 12 cookies.

The zodiac ride back was a little adventurous. The beach in front of the settlement was a little too shallow, and once everyone was in the boats they couldn't back out, because the weight caused the zodiacs to rest on the rocks. After the first two zodiacs left, the rest of us were told to walk down to the jetty, about a 10 minute walk away down the coast. On this walk we saw more penguins, but also a mother duck with all of her newborns, and also some more oystercatchers. By the time we got back, it was about 6:30 in the evening. The weather wasn't nearly as nice as in the morning, but it didn't interfere with our afternoon excursion either. Lots of people actually got sunburned on the first excursion, something that we avoided since Crystal had purchased SPF 50 lotion before we left San Diego.

At our 7pm briefing, Anja told us about the excursion the next day, which would be a long day (but not quite full day) in Stanley, the "capital" of the Falklands. We are scheduled to visit Gypsy cove for wildlife, and the rest of the day is supposed to be in the city, at a museum, trinket shopping, and so on. It sounds like a little letdown from a wildlife standpoint. We take a full day to get to the Falklands, then get a full day of excursions, then get a half day of excursions (with not much wildlife), and then we are at sea again, for 2+ days until we reach South Georgia. So its very fortunate that today was such a good day.

Shortly after dinner started we started really rocking a rolling - there was a headwind that caused waves to keep hitting us from the boat, tilting the boat from front to back. Then came some side-to-side action, and at this point about 1/3 of the dining room got up and retreated to their respective cabins, unfortunately including Crystal as well. Justin went outside for some fresh air, and almost fell asleep on one of the outdoor benches - that may have ended badly. After a couple of hours, the hardest stuff was gone and it was back to "normal."