Melinda and I have found a pretty good modus operandi. We set an alarm, and wake up, 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled wake-up call. We can be ready for breakfast in 40 minutes but not quite in the 30 from wake-up call to breakfast-call on the schedule. So it was today – the alarm sounded at 5:45a.
My normal fare for breakfast when at home is just milk and orange juice, so I’m finding the three meals each day a challenge to my typical rhythm. On the buffet today were quiche and breakfast tater tots along with bread (optionally toasted), cereal, cold cuts, milk, and juice. We’re done with breakfast in 15 minutes and have plenty of time before first zodiac.
Another change to our standard plan is to queue up for going ashore 10-15 minutes earlier than the first zodiac time, as the first zodiac _really_ goes out up to 20 minutes early, and the queue forms starting then. Besides, we’re ready to go shortly after breakfast, and it’s more comfortable to idle on the outer deck than inside because we’re wearing many layers to go ashore.
Today’s first stop is West Point Island, a private island owned by one person. On the island is a home, a few outbuildings, a dock, 1000 sheep, and the usual raft of Falkland birds: albatross, rockhoppers, magellanics, and others. The dock means it’s a dry landing – we don’t need to step into water on a beach when leaving the zodiac. So I wear my hiking boots ashore. We’ll have one or possible two more dry landings on the trip; the other 20+ will be beach landings.
From the dock it’s a steep walk for 50 yards up to the house, and the steep walk continues uphill another 300-400 yards. Although the dock makes for a nice landing, all the native wildlife on the island is on the opposite side. We walk up the steep incline then along a long valley until we reach the other side of the island, about 1.5 miles away. We look at these birds for just a few minutes but decided instead to join an organized hike out looking for a peregrine falcon pair and chick. Rumor has it that the chick has already fledged, so we don’t get our hopes up, but it’ll be a fun different thing to do. We saw a lot of albatross and rockhoppers yesterday, and these don’t look to be quite as spectacular.
Our hike takes us up another steep incline to the top of Devil’s Nose, a rocky hill on the island. We see an adult and a juvenile redback hawk, which is a treat, but no falcons. I enjoy the hike and the view from the top of the hill. The hike runs for about an hour, and this first landing was only three hours, so we head back to the house and the dock. On the way back I get a GPS fix on my phone: 51 deg. 20.944’ S by 60 deg. 41.478’ W. I also meet a retired neurologist, Art, who lives in Seattle and was asking me what I was doing with my phone. We talk briefly but Melinda was talking with someone else at the time; I’m sure she and Art will catch up at some point.
The notable item for this landing point, though, is the hospitality at the house. The woman living there makes tea and coffee for everyone and puts out an endless spread of scones, cookies, cakes, and crackers. I take three lovely lavender(?) cookies among several other treats; it’s a great rich, sweet treat to end the morning’s hiking. I also photograph the Falkland Islands flag flying in front of the house and three turkey vultures perching on the top of her house like gargoyles.
Back aboard ship we have lunch while the ship sails just a few miles away to our next landing site. Lunch is quesadillas, corn chowder soup, salad, and a fruit dessert. There’s two dining rooms onboard, port and starboard, and although there’s not assigned seating some people have shown an affinity for one or the other. We’ve taken to dining in the starboard room, in part because it’s a little smaller and in part it seems a little more mellow than the other side. Many people are gregarious on this trip, enough for each table to get one or two such people per. It’s fun but can make learning about the more quiet people more difficult.
The second landing site is Carcass Island. I don’t know the history on this island, but it’s here where we officially (finally?) go through customs for the Falklands. That happens all without the passengers’ intervention; the staff has all our passports, and each gets stamped today. We’ll see what it looks like at the end of the trip; I hear it’s a penguin stamp. 8)
The weather is a little choppier here; the leaders decided to use the other gangway after sending one or two loads of people out. The ship’s crew diligently sets to lowering the gangway but it’s a process that’s not as rehearsed as one might find on a ferry or cruise ship. Apparently the gangway was rebuilt just a few weeks ago. Everyone does eventually make it down and on to a zodiac and soon we’re on the beach.
Our landing site is only 20 yards from a small group of magellanic penguins who are idling on the shore and occasionally feeding in the water. We make our landing camp, that pile of unneeded dry bags and zodiac gear, off the beach and on the grassy land behind sand dunes, trying to avoid causing much consternation among the penguins. There’s a Gentoo colony about a half-mile away so Melinda and I head off in that direction.
We follow a jeep road for a while then pick up a path along a fence. The fence runs through tussac grass and, unknown to us when we commit to this route, our trail runs through a mine field of magellanic burrows. In our defense, we were following our guide’s advice for where to walk, and, in general we have free reign to go anywhere at landing sites following guidelines for staying away from animals (eg, approach no closer than 15 feet). And, we were joined by two other people, so we were following our combined wisdom. Unfortunately, our combined wisdom led us through a collection of magellanic burrows and penguins, and it was hard to keep a distance at all times. We made it through and later found an alternative route so we could avoid a second storming through their village.
The reward for crossing the mine field was a nice point of view of the Gentoo colony. Along the way we spotted a magellanic snipe, a prize that many people had been looking for, but I think we were among only a few who saw it. No pictures, though. The gentoos here were nesting; well, fledgling, really, and most of the young are pretty well along in their fledgling. It was great fun to watch their antics and from a reasonably close distance. Melinda’s been carrying the small digital camera and the binoculars; the binoculars give a great close-up view of the activity in the colony. From the colony, set perhaps 500 yards up from the water, a trickle of Gentoo penguins waddle to and fro feeding their young. Gentoos travel on land with an amusing combination of urgency and awkwardness. They hold their flippers from their bodies, learn forward a little, and walk by waddling, at a pretty good pace, too. Magellanics, on the other hand, don’t lead forward and leave their wings mostly just at their side. Rockhoppers hop, of course, and waddle to walk, but don’t have the same lean and urgency that Gentoos exhibit. We saw a lone king penguin looking somewhat out of place along the Gentoo highway, which was notable because none of the trip organizers had seen a king on this island before. It was a juvenile, not finished molting out of its downy coat- maybe it was lost?
While sitting near the Gentoo colony a little bird visited our group of five or so people and hopped up on I think everyone’s boot as some point. It was a very curious bird. We had no hand-outs for it, though.
Melinda and I headed back to the landing site just in time to catch the ecology talk and hike planned in the afternoon. Nick and Gail, two of the leaders, lead it and we got a little history of inhabitation of the island and some interesting history of introducing species, and later trying to eradicate them. The hike identified some plants along the way and we found a goose that had been killed within the past day or two, only partially eaten. All very exciting finds. Sheep had formerly grazed the island, and many of the grasses and other plans are not native. Nick explained that the soil doesn’t contain all the minerals that many animals need, so grazing on the grasses there just won’t make up for those missing minerals. At the end of the hike, we see a few more magellanics and a pair of flightless steamer ducks standing near a pile of fluffy downy chicks.
Back at the landing site we observe even more magellanics, including many subadults, and even see a couple of Gentoos amongst them. An RAF officer is on hand who was our customs agent, and now he seems to be just enjoying the view and waiting for his ride (he arrived by helicopter, IIUC). While we’re just sitting on the beach a caracara swoops down to the thick of people, not six feet away from most of us. Happily I have my long lens on the camera so I get some nice close-ups of the Johnny Rook. He walks around a bit, flies up to the top of the tussac, then heads down the beach. Neat visit.
There’s a lot of expensive camera gear on this ship, but it’s turning out that not all of it is from more experienced photographers than I. The guides held a Q&A session about photography on shore today and 25 people showed up, some of them with the fancy L-series lens and questions easy enough that I could answer. One suggestion that’s been going around is to set the AF-ON button on the camera to be an “autofocus now” function, and to remove the “autofocus now” option from the half-pressed shutter release. The notion is that the shutter release version will continually change focus as you’re composing your shot, and certainly it will if you take more than one exposure with one-shot drive. Moving the autofocus option to a different button gives more control of when it will happen. I think I’ll stick with the status quo for now, though, because I can shoot my camera one-handed now, and putting the button on the back would move my thumb just enough that I couldn’t hold the camera stably. But with a longer lens it may be worth it. Interesting idea.
We returned to the ship about an hour earlier than we needed to, but we were done taking in Carcass Island. We reset our gear, I began this journal entry, and we thought a bit about the day and the plan for tomorrow. Over dinner we heard the plan for tomorrow: 6a wake-up again, 7:30 first zodiac, and everyone back at 4p. Lunch on Steeple Jason, and a lot of hours spent looking at albatross and maybe some penguins. It’s apparently going to be a somewhat more challenging landing, but hiking boots on land would be handy. Ted also advised that, due to the difficulty of hiking, long lenses wouldn’t be so great. My 75-200mm isn’t the type of lens he’s talking about – it’s tiny compared to the 500mm L-series lenses I’ve seen – but the sentiment is still there: the best photography will be scenery, not close-ups. So I’ll probably take only my short zoom lens, which’ll also lighten my dry bag to make room for my hiking boots.