The Falkland Islands-Penguin Paradise

Sewage and garbage dumped by local sanitation companies, the shiping industry, and fishing boats threaten marine life in the Falkland Islands. Penguin, elephant seal, and sea  lion  populations  have  declined  and  are  increasingly  vulnerable  to  pollution,  discarded fishing equipment, and oil slicks; they often either ingest or become entangled in plastic rope, soda can holders, and plastic bottles.

Say  “Falkland  Islands”  and  most  folks  will recall  late-night  comedians  joking  over Argentina’s quixotic 1982 invasion of this virtually  unknown  British  possession.  But say  “Falkland  Islands”  to  an  ornithologist and  he’ll  see  something  way  different:  a sunny vision of penguins, seals, and albatrosses,   frolicking   on   unspoiled   rocky islands.

Sketch  in  an  image  of  offshore  oil  rigs, though,  and  it’s  a  darker  picture  indeed. One of the reasons Britain fought to retain this offshore territory was the promise of oil here, 482km (300 miles) off Argentina’s Atlantic coast. As plans to develop that oil proceed apace, environmentalists scramble to   assess   the   impact   on   the   islands’ extraordinary wildlife. One thing is sure: It won’t be good.

Often  lumped  into  an  Antarctic  cruise itinerary  (see  Antarctica,  p.  17),  the  Falklands—also   known   as   the   Malvinas—deserve   a   visit   on   their   own   merits. Individual  tourists  (and  there  aren’t  many) can fly in from Santiago, Chile, though there is also a weekly RAF charter from the U.K. Instead  of  daredevil  glacier  climbing,  Falklands  visitors  enjoy  more  contemplative pursuits   such   as   photography,   birding, cross-country  tramping,  and  trout  fishing. Penguins are the stars of the show, with no fewer  than  five  varieties  colonizing  the islands’ white sandy beaches: gentoo (chinstrap), Magellanic (jackass), macaroni, rock-hopper,  and  king  penguins.  Sea  lions,  fur seals, and elephant seals hide in the tall tussock  grass,  alongside  tiny  spiky  tussock birds;  rare  seabirds  such  as  the  black-browed albatross, the giant petrel, and the striated caracara (known here as the Johnny rook) roost on tiny rocky sanctuaries scattered  around  the  two  main  islands.  Local tour companies will help you organize the 4WD vehicles or small planes you may need to reach the more remote wildlife spots.

The  Falklands  have  their  own  defiantly unglitzy  charm,  the  no-nonsense  air  of  a distant  outpost  where  the  settlers  simply soldier  on.  Residents  cling  to  a  sense  of empire,  with  the  Union  Jack  proudly  on display;  the  port  town  of  Stanley  has  a Victorian  air,  though  most  houses  sport gaily colored tin roofs that look more like Reykjavik  than  Dover.  Southerly  as  they are, the Falklands are still in the temperate zone,  with  temperatures  similar  to  Lon-don’s; even in the depths of winter the sun shines  at  least  6  hours  a  day.  The  landscape is a scrubby, hardy terrain of eroded peat and rocky scree, where dwarf shrubs stand  in  for  trees.  But  those  penguins, they  think  the  island  is  paradise—and naturalists would like to keep it that way.