Just beyond the steep drop I stumble on three rockhopper penguins pushing themselves into a narrow crevice. They’re doing their best to keep out my way. So I backtrack to find another route round and soon I’m scrambling up a high rock stack, from the top I stare down a wonderful coastline.
A heavy swell is hitting the shelves and the sea is rising into grand columns that fountain as they’re drawn sideways by the strong easterlies. Occasional geyser spouts are forced through narrow fissures, how the giant petrels avoid them is a marvel of evolution. On land, and close up, these birds are clumsy looking things yet they pass me with remarkable grace, their oscillating flights offering vertical tacks into the wind. I stay on the stack for a good hour watching the far cormorants come and go, and the southern skuas that chase them down in a klepto-parasitic style. I stand on my own, the only human in this view, feeling humble and awkward.
These cliff tops, on the eastern side of Sea Lion Island, hold thousands of imperial shags that commute between strong seas and flat ledges. An hour ago I was stood with them taking photographs as they left the ledge flying just a metre or so above my head. Between the shags several snowy sheathbills waddle by. As I watch them I can’t help thinking that these white feathered birds are poorly named, a more literal label would have them known as the filthy shit-pecker. They shuffle between the shags jabbing the final nutrients from green fish-laced faeces.
This is my first day on Sea Lion Island. I’ve already stood so close to elephant seals that the smell singes the hairs of my nostrils. They rise up and bellow at tiny tussock birds that peck at their skin, drawing tight lines of blood from them. They respond with rumbles of fury, pink mouths with stump teeth pushing warm sickly breath into the air. And from the rear they eject a heavy gas that ripples out of them, all the while waves of fat roll along their crescent-curved bodies.
I’m too late in the season to see any of the enormous beachmasters, but the males here still weigh over three tonnes. Several of the group are laid in a quagmire of seaweed and their own faeces, the regularity of their belching and farting is quite alarming. Yet being next to them, here on a lonely beach, is a privilege I’ve been yearning to experience for nearly four decades.
Then I notice Lotto and Dottie, two elephant seals that have their bellies graffitied by two Italian scientists, Carla Galimberti, and her husband Alberto. They’ve been conducting long term research of these seals stretching back to 1995. Carla tells me about their work and how the belly-graffiti helps them identify individual animals from a distance, and unlike with tags these markings can’t be lost.
While the markings look out of place in this wild environment the research has shown that the vast majority of elephant seals on this island were born here. The population stands at about 3000, more than on any other of the Falkland Islands and they can travel some distance with re-sights recorded at the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Even without this information this scene would be a marvel of ecology and bodily gasses.
Graham, one of Sea Lion Island’s managers, tells me that orcas where off-shore here less than ten minutes ago, ‘they were heading west,’ he says, ‘if you follow the coast you may catch them.’ So I set off, stopping quickly at another group of elephant seals that are facing out to sea. The beach is a white expanse of cold beauty, two-banded plovers skit across it leaving tiny ephemeral tracks in their wake. As I follow the coast, several striated caracara keep track of me. These exceptionally rare raptors watch me with a hungry-eagerness, I imagine their thinking, ‘how long has this one got?’ They call them Johnny-rooks here and these intelligent predator-scavengers are known to prise the eyes from sheep well before death has them. I decide not to lie down but to keep on moving.
I walk till I stumble across a sea lion basking up the meagre rays of a southern sun. I wonder how I missed this creature till now, its long body blubbering over the rocks and its thick main a lush autumn-brown. Despite its size I’m only five short steps away before the form reveals itself from amongst the boulders. In turn, and despite my clumsy appearance within this landscape, it doesn’t notice me for some time, so I sit on a rock and watch it resting.
When it eventually spots me it appears shocked at my presence, as though I appeared from thin air. It stares at me for the briefest of moments before lifting its torso high and baring a flat lipped mouth and then taking to the sea. I notice three female sea lions across the way, one has thick milk lactating from her teats, a dark pup is latched on satisfying its hunger.
I stay where I am and watch little birds flit between the boulders and, higher up on the slopes, a colony of jackass penguins that, in turn, stare down at me from their peat burrows. Then, when I look out to sea, a splash draws my attention and there, just at the far edge of the kelp, four orcas are rising. I watch these pack hunters head west as three caracara watch me from the top of peat hags. Now and then an endemic Cobb’s wren flits from the tussock grass and onto the rocks by my feet. I pass my attention between the endless wonder of this six kilometre island.
Earlier Jenny, the lodge manager, told me about these orcas. On Elephant Seal Beach one female has learned to race into a deep pool where the pups of elephant seal play. She virtually beaches herself in order to harvest the prey. Each year she teaches her offspring to hunt in the same manner, but it takes practice. Jenny and Graham, along with other staff and guests, spent a couple of hours helping one of her calves back to the sea after a miscalculated hunting foray left it beached on the sand. When they finally returned the errant youth its mother breached joyously, Jenny told me, ‘it was if she was thanking us all.’ And I wonder if these animals can indeed express gratitude.
I watch the orcas for an hour or so before walking over the brow of the hill and back to Sea Lion Lodge. As I walk through the soft vegetation I notice a small snipe, its cryptic markings keeping it hid until I’m nearly on it. By its long-toed feet a chick sits blending even more perfectly than its mother does. I lay down a few metres away and watch her probe a pencil-fine bill into thin peat soil. The chick waits next to her for a meal. The snipe has spotted me and keeps a wary distance between us but doesn’t rush to leave. I stay there, laying in the grass, the sun barely warming us, till they disappear into the vegetation.
That evening I sit with the other guests over dinner. We’re a strange and interesting mix, people that would most likely never meet except in places like this. Sharing the lodge with me are a group of Ecuadorian politicians with their translator from Wigan in North-West England. Another guest is the well-known travel writer Mark Avery, and then there are two bloggers who spent many years working for the United Nations. With us is a quietly spoken farmer from Lincolnshire, as is often the case with British people I spend a while talking about the weather with him.
Over coffee Graham tells us he’d like to see sheep back on the island, he’s also a farmer at heart and wants to marry conservation with livestock. It would help Sea Lion Island become self-sufficient he says. I ask him if it would make an impact on the expansive stands of tussock grass, he doesn’t think so, ‘a thousand sheep would get lost here, it shouldn’t have any impact at all.’ I wonder if this is true, other islands that I’ve visited here have very different vegetation types that have clearly been driven by grazing pressure, but I suppose if carefully managed it may work well. A bigger pressure would be rodents arriving, rats, for example, could decimate ground nesting bird populations. Thankfully Sea Lion Island is free from these non-native scavengers.
The next day the wind generator whips through the air, whooshing round and round, the solar panels on the roof add to the warm feeling, despite being able to see your breath in the cold summer air. On the beach early-morning giant petrels fight each other, they chest-barge with a posturing gesture trying to knock the other aside. Behind the two fighters others are playing a tug-of-war with a penguin carcass. The elephant seals ignore this little piece of mayhem and continue to burp and fart.
As the sun brings the temperature up to cold I walk eastwards to the rockhopper penguin colony. These birds smother a cliff top. Many are moulting and have strange looking hair-styles, like 1970’s punk rockers, one has a mowhawk of downy feathers and another sports a rockabilly flat-top. Some are squabbling, but most stand in serene silence, barely bothering to watch me as I pass by at the edge of the colony.
I take careful steps down the craggy cliff, trying my best to create no disturbance, but I needn’t worry, these birds show no interest in me and simply continue with their own affairs. So I walk further, down to a steep slope that angles itself into a swirling sea, and there, in-between masses of white water, tiny rockhopper penguins are taking a battering. At first I’m concerned for them, however, on watching, I see how perfectly adapted they are for these heavy seas.
Out to sea, a little way bust beyond the cliffs, they raft together and then, on some unknown signal, they porpoise into towards the ledge. For a moment I think they could be in danger and then from out of a whirlpool of fierce sea they launch themselves into the air, and I find myself watching the unlikely event of a penguin in mid-flight. Then they turn their bodies to the right angle and land on the slope, some are caught by the next wave and are washed back into the sea, others don’t make a good launch and are drawn back into a rage of water. These all swim from the cliffs to start other again. Those that make it run with surprising agility up the cliff, and then, once out of reach of the swell, they calmly preen themselves as though they’ve just been for a leisurely dip.
I spend most of the day with them taking photographs and just watching them go about their daily lives. I learn about them through their squabbles and greetings but for the most part I recognise the desire they appear to have for remaining still and simply existing. I feel an affinity with them, one that they no doubt fail to reciprocate.
After several hours with them I walk to the eastern tip of the island. Here vast patches of degraded peat soils create a kind of stark moon-scape. I sit down and watch giant petrels laze by on the demanding winds. Then, I take a slow walk back to the lodge stopping to be with the snipe and Johnny-rooks as the mood takes me.
Over dinner we swap stories, the sights we’ve seen, each of our highlights of the day and the moments of wonder that occur with surprising regularity here. Then, after dinner, Jenny drives us towards the Gentoo penguin colonies as the sun begins to set. She turns the Land Rover round and we face a deepening red sky broken by the silhouettes of penguins. The comical calls of the gentoo’s cousins, the jackass penguins, fade into the dusk. A few hundred metres away the sea has calmed into a gentle rhythm while a half-moon rises above it.