Thursday, March 28, 2013

Falkland Islands: Thank heavens for the penguins

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

As I was riding the tender the two miles back to the Star Princess moored at Port William Harbor the second time, the passenger sitting directly opposite me on the tender bench, said, "Thank heavens for the Falkland Islands that they have penguins!" His meaning, for anyone who has visited Stanley, would be clear: There is no reason for visiting the Falkland Islands unless you want to see penguins.

Visit any of the several souvenir stores in Stanley, and your conclusion might be the same: Thank goodness for the penguins. Almost every tee-shirt, sweatshirt, or jacket, and nearly every key chain, tree ornament, statue, or refrigerator magnet has the likeness of a penguin (or penguins) on it (them). It is by far, the dominant icon used to represent the islands. You needn’t wonder why: The Falkland Islands are best known for their penguins, with five breeding species and over a million penguins total. That is a lot of penguins, but Falklands penguins numbered over 6 million in 1984. The massive decline of 5 million penguins has resulted from commercial fishing, and the Falkland penguins are in urgent need of protection. More on seeing penguins later in this essay.

For the moment, let me say that we’re very fortunate to even be in the Falkland Islands. Here is what it says at the CruiseCritic website on The Stanley Port

"The area [around the Falklands] is so windswept and the seas around it so fierce that only about half of the cruise ships scheduled to call at Port Stanley actually make it. Since there is no dock, even if the ships themselves can get into the harbor, the tenders are often unable to handle the wind and high seas. It's no great surprise, then, to discover that the harbor itself and the areas surrounding it has more shipwrecks from the 19th-century shipping trade than any other harbor in the world ... some 20 hulls are actually visible from the town when the tide is out"Our captain said in one of his broadcast announcements, that he has been cruising this area of the South Atlantic Ocean for seven seasons, and on our trip, he said, we have the best weather of any that he has seen in the Falklands.

Now back to the penguins. Having twice seen the Fairy Penguins in southern Australia, and having seen penguins on the Internet and in movies, we made a decision that we would not take a Princess excursion to see them while in the Falklands. The Falklands are a breeding ground for King Penguins, Gentoo Penguins, Rockhopper Penguins, Macaroni Penguins, and the Magallenic (Jackass) Penguins, and their breeding grounds literally pepper the coastal areas. If you want to see some great YouTube videos, enter Falkland Island Penguins into Google.

Incidentally, and just as an aside here, the Falkland Islands lie 280 miles east of the South American continent, and they are divided into two large islands—West Falkland and East Falkland,—and there are more than 750 small islands and islets. The West and East areas are separated by the Falkland Sound, and there is a ferry that traverses the Sound from Port Howard in the West to New Haven in the East.

If you know that the entire population of the Falkland Islands is only 3,200 (1,550 live in Stanley—the only town), and there are at least a million sheep—but sheep don’t make nearly as interesting a symbolic icon for the islands!—then you will realize the villages are small, and with two huge cruise ships moored in the Port William harbor at the same time, the passengers on these two ships easily double the entire population of the Falklands.

I mention the sheep in jest, but the Falkland’s economy has been based on sheep farming, but the worldwide slump in demand have left sheep farmers struggling for survival. According to the "Stanley Princess Port Guide," "[Sheep] farmers are now financially supported out of the revenues generated by the fishing industry, which currently produces about 50% of the Falkland Island Government revenue."

The Falkland Islands are ideal for sheep farming because of the nearly flat or gently rolling hills and the barren, rocky terrain. The terrain is either rocky or grass covered.

Instead of taking a Princess excursion, we chose a van trip arranged at the Public Jetty in Stanley Harbor (where our tenders dropped us off), to Gypsy Cove. During the high season of tourists, the cost is $25.00 U.S. per person, but because the season was winding down, the cost was reduced to $20.00 U.S. per person, and Gypsy Cove is about 4 miles from Stanley—about an hour-and-a-half walk.

A number of passengers booked Princess excursions to Volunteer Point to see King Penguins. The reports were not so good. First, the groups travel together in a caravan of four, five, or six jeeps, the trip takes almost 2½ hours one way, and the dirt road is so bumpy that they warn people with bad backs or neck problems not to take the trip.

At the dock where the tenders came in we hopped onto the $20 tourist van to Gypsy Cove, a National Nature Reserve owned by the Falkland Islands Government. It is a small bay with a crescent of white sand and is backed by dry heathland with patches of tussac grass, cinnamon grass, and dune. This is a Magellanic Penguins rockery. Some had borrows only a few feet off the trail. Many had chicks in the burrows.

Parts of Gypsy Cove are fenced off and red warning signs are posted all along the sidewalk overlooking the Cove and Yorke Bay. As it turns out, during the 1982 occupation of the Falklands, the Argentines placed several fields of plastic landmines nearby, in order to prevent a British landing. The British, instead, marched on Stanley from the landward side, from the west, avoiding Gypsy Cove and Yorke Bay.

According to our Princess Port Guide:
"In April, 1982, Argentine Special Forces invaded the islands and met fierce resistance from the Royal Marines, in particular of the defence (sic) of Government House. Argentine reinforcements who followed later though were poorly trained and equipped. By June of the same year Argentine forces were defeated, setting the stage for the collapse of the military regime."
More on Gypsy Cove and our walking tour of Stanley in the second essay on the Falkland Islands. Incidentally, the Falklands were one of our favorite stops on this cruise.

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This site is from the Falkland Island Tourist Board. It has good information and some great pictures.

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Copyright March, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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