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.