A Falkland Islands Frolic: Las Islas Malvinas

This seldom visited and little known archipelago has a lot to offer for the adventurous traveler. Our two day voyage to the from Argentina to the islands began with the good omen of a rainbow in the Beagle channel. Once clear of the channel, the seas became rougher.

Rainbow over Beagle Channel (Photo:Dave’s Travel Corner)

Most people who are not Argentines have never heard of the Islas Malvinas. Likewise, many folks who are not British have never heard of the Falkland Islands, especially if they are younger than 50 years old. A war was fought between these two in 1982 over whose nation would control them.

When people asked me about the next trip I would be taking, I got blank stares when mentioning either name for these islands. When I mentioned that I am also going to South Georgia Island, I got a nervous half smile. Finally, when I mentioned that my last stop would be in Antarctica, their eyes lit up! Finally someplace that they could imagine where it was.

Location of Falkland Islands. (Map:Ontheworldmap.com)

My old high school friend in New Jersey is the best example of this. While most of us moved away after graduation and found new geographies to identify our lives by, my friend remained there and never traveled anywhere. But we have a shared history long ago and we still keep in touch from time to time.

“Where are you off to this time?”, he asks.

“I’m off to explore the Malvinas Islands”, I respond, always trying to pique someone’s interest in Geography.

Silence. “Maybe you know them as the Falkland Islands”, I added. He was surely old enough to remember the war.

“There’s millions of F**king islands in the world”, he exclaimed. “Which F**king islands are you talking about?”, he asked in a thick Jersey shore accent that hadn’t changed in 45 years.

“NOT the F**KING Islands!”, I shouted back. “THE FALKLAND ISLANDS! The name has an L in it. They are located off the coast of Argentina and are a British Overseas Protectorate. Don’t you remember the war that happened there in 1982?”

“Oh, never heard of them”, he replied calmly. You would have to have an interest in the rest of the world if you were to ever want to travel.

Certainly all Argentinians know about the Malvinas. And don’t ever use the F word (Falklands) when referring to them. All over their country, they are still angry with the English for taking what they feel was rightfully theirs. The history is complicated, but the islands were uninhabited by people when the British discovered them in the late 1600s. The French, Spanish, and for a brief time the Argentinians had control of the islands. In 1690, John Story of England named the islands after Viscount Falkland. 74 years later, Bougainville of France named the islands Les Malouines after the many fishermen who came there from St. Malo. Malvinas is the Spanish derivative from the original French.

Britain regained control of the islands in 1833. One would have to go back to the Arana Southern Treaty in the mid 1800s between Argentina and the United Kingdom, which would have a negative impact on Argentina’s modern claim to the islands. But that didn’t stop the military Junta of Leopoldo Galtieri from invading the islands in April of 1982, as he faced a slumping economy and increased civil opposition to military rule. He hoped that fostering pro-nationalist sentiment over the sovereignty of the islands would keep the military in power, but Argentinian forces surrendered in June of 1982.

a sign in Ushuaia to reinforce Argentine nationalism
This sign is Ushuaia incorrectly states that the Malvinas belong to the Fuegan People. There were no indigenous peoples on the Malvinas Islands

Our amphibious landings in zodiacs on Grave Cove and on West Point Island in the West Falklands were much more innocuous than those of the Argentine Naval invasion 40 years ago. The only denizens that awaited us on the beach were a small colony of Gentoo Penguins, some Cari Cara raptors, a few fur seals and an albatross colony. We came well armed with cameras and were ready to shoot. However, we were polite enough to do it at a distance and not disturb the wildlife. Nature tourism has been growing the past decade and the Falklands government has stressed conservation measures and biosecurity. All people who land on the islands must make sure that their boots are impeccably clean and sanitized with Virkon disinfectant before landing, a broad spectrum disinfectant designed to be effective against 61 strains of virus and several strains of bacteria and fungi.

First landing at Grave Cove, West Falkland

After a zodiac landing, we made a short hike to a Gentoo Penguin colony.

Gentoo Penguins at Grave Cove

The Gentoo Penguins had bigger problems to worry about than our presence. Nearby were Striated Cara Cara raptors, who are opportunistic thieves and will grab an unattended penguin egg any chance that they get. The Falkland Islands are home to 98% of the world population of Striated Cara Caras. The one in the picture below came so close to me that I didn’t need a zoom lens.

Striated Caria Cara raptor

Penguins like to march in single file from their nests to the sea. When viewing them, it is important to not block their “Penguin Highway” for the least amount of disturbance to them.

Gentoo Highway at Grave Cove
Note the Cara Cara on the left, keeping watch

After Grave Cove, we weighed anchor and went a short distance to West Point Island to hike across the island to see an albatross colony which was shared with some rockhopper penguins. The Falklands are home to five species of penguins, along with a multitude of bird species.

West Point Island is in the far Northwest portion of West Falkland
Launching Zodiacs to go to West Point Island

The Falklands have about 3,400 residents, with almost 2,800 people clustered near the capital of Stanley, on East Falkland. That leaves just a few hundred residents scattered over the rest of the nearly 4,700 square miles (12,000 square km). When you see a village on a map, it may only consist of a family or two. The “village” of the Napier Hill settlement in the picture below was a one house farm first leased to Arthur Felton in 1879. Lease and ownership of the island has remained with his descendants. Sheep were raised here for years, and trees were planted here as windbreaks. The ashes of Lars-Eric Lindblad, one of the pioneers of Falkland Islands tourism and Antarctic Tourism, lie here. Ever heard of the company Lindblad Expeditions?

After landing in zodiacs, we took about a 1.25 mile hike across the island to the Devil’s Nose, where there is an albatross colony located on a cliff overlooking the sea. The Falklands are essentially treeless, so residents historically cut peat for fire to heat their homes in winter. Peat cutting Monday in October is a National Holiday here! They also used seals and penguins for their oil in the past. Sheep production for wool and meat were historically important. Today, fishing and tourism are important, and some remote farms are turning into ecotourism lodges where guests can mix wildlife viewing with agro-tourism.

Walking across West Point Island

When we got to the cliffs on the other side of the island, the ocean breezes became stiff. This is the perfect place for large birds such as the albatross to spread their huge wings and get a liftoff. It also provides the ideal conditions for chicks to take their first flight. Albatross mate for life, and it was interesting to watch the courtship of a pair that had recently been reunited from their long time away from each other at sea.

Some rockhopper penguins had also found their way up the cliffs, and were intermingled with the albatross. After sharing that special place with them for a while, we hiked back over the island to catch a zodiac back to the ship. The picturesque view of bright yellow gorse hedge, green grass and tussock, mixed with the deep blue water is a vision that I will never forget and will endear me to West Falkland forever.

beautiful Gorse hedge with Plancius moored in the harbor in the background

The following day brought a change in the weather and a storm was heading our way. We were supposed to go to Stanley and visit East Falkland, but the winds were forecast to be 50 knots and the harbor would be closed. Too windy and dangerous to launch a zodiac! Rather than wait around and possibly still not have the opportunity to land, the captain and expedition staff decided to bag on the idea of visiting East Falkland and head straight away to South Georgia Island, another three days sailing on open ocean. I had really wanted to visit some of the battle sites of the Falklands war there and was disappointed that we could not do so, but being a former guide myself, I understand that you need respect Mother Nature and only do what she allows you to do.

We have three days of sailing on open ocean to get to our next destination. My next post will be about South Georgia Island, which has the largest concentration of wildlife on the planet and is known as “the Serengeti of the Sea.” That ONE place is the most important place for me on this trip and look forward to that experience with anticipation and excitement. I pray we have good weather there.

For books on further reading about the Falklands War……

74 days: An Insider’s Diary of the Falklands Occupation 1982; John Smith, Quetzal Publications, 2002. ISBN 1-90365703-2

Efemerides #Malvinas: 74 dias en 280 Caracteres: Hernan Favier, Instituto de Publicaciones Navales del Centro Naval, 2022. ISBN 978-950-899-157-7

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