Christmas in the Falklands.

Christmas morning dawned to the rock, roll and surge of the ocean below, accompanied by that splitsecond of where-am-I panic followed by sleepy wonderment.  Sunlight streamed into the room from a bluebird sky.

Land!  We had reached the Falkland Islands, which in case you didn’t know, are awkwardly occupied by the British (to the great annoyance of Argentina).  The ship maneuvered carefully through the Woolly Gut, a narrow passage between the cliffs of West Point Island and West Falkland, the air alive with seabirds nesting on the rocks.  While it failed to provide any feeling of Christmas whatsoever, we were thrilled to make our first landing to view some wildlife.  After bundling up in our signature Quark parkas (all in matching shades of extremely flattering neon yellow, naturally), we waddled clumsily into the zodiacs to be ferried to shore.

The landing on West Point Island began with a long walk in our rain gear and rubber boots, up and over a series of rolling green hills, to the complete other side of the island, inaccessible by boat.  Here, along the sea cliffs known as Devil’s Nose and amongst a maze of tussock grass, nested countless black-browed albatross with their young chicks.  Rockhopper penguins were also plentiful, hopping haphazardly up the rocks and waddling fiercely through the grass in groups, red eyes aflame and yellow eyebrows sticking every which way.  While I found the albatrosses to be incredibly beautiful birds, the rockhoppers were just bizarre, and had a tendency to look quite ill-tempered simply while going about their daily activities.  In any case, it was the first time I felt comfortable shooting with a gigantic lens, and it was great fun stalking around in the grass, trying to get as close as possible.

After lunch we sailed for Saunder’s Island, and upon approaching found the ship absolutely surrounded with immense numbers of Commerson’s dolphins, darting in and out of sight through the clear turquoise waters.  They followed our zodiacs to shore, surfing playfully through the breakers alongside us, disappearing again into the depths as we coasted onto the beach.  A huge expanse of white sand greeted us, backed by rolling green hills and absolutely covered in four different species of penguins!  Gentoos, Rockhoppers and Magellanic penguins made their way to and from the ocean, bringing food to their chicks, while a lone, iconic King penguin stood peacefully on its own, much to the obsession of us photographers (who obviously had no clue what would be in store on South Georgia).  We wandered in awe through the various colonies of birds, who took almost no notice of us whatsoever, on what was without question the most glorious Christmas Day of all time.  Sheep grazed in the background, an odd reminder of the island’s British occupation, while we speechlessly admired the magnificent spectacle before us.  So many birds, on such a perfect day.

Gentoos waddle back to their nests, ready to regurgitate.

Falkland Islands

Magellanic penguins relaxing in front of the Sea Spirit.

A few more King penguins in front of a whale skeleton.

A Rockhopper penguin colony.  As we sat there with our cameras, they came close enough to touch!

A Rockhopper penguin and its chick.  Check out that tongue!

Shortly before the expedition staff practically had to drag us back to the ship, we spent our last minutes watching a group of Rockhopper penguins playing in a tide pool at the base of a cliff. The speed with which the angry-looking birds frolicked, rolled, and attacked each other in the water was amazing.  While clumsy on land, having no visible knees and all, their aquatic skills are unparalleled – they arrive land airborne from the sheer velocity of their swimming abilities. Photos can’t do it justice, but I tried.

As we meandered reluctantly back to the boats, the wind picked up, blasting sand in swirling patterns over the beach.  The penguins waddling across it stood silhouetted against the setting sun, continuing about business as usual as we hurriedly stuffed our cameras into our jackets, away from the threat of blowing sand.  An absolutely epic first landing day had come to a close.

Thrilled with the day’s events, we crowded into the briefing room before dinner, chatting excitedly about all we had seen and experienced.  The only comments of the Expedition Leader?

“What we saw today… that was actually rather pathetic.”

Really, we had no idea.

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