“30 Anõs Ushuaia Capital de las Malvinas” (Translation: 30 years of Ushuaia Capital of the Falklands), a large painting across a waterfront park wall proudly announces to all ship traffic passing by or seeking refuge in the port of Ushuaia. The sign formerly read, “Ushuaia end of the world beginning of everything”, an appropriate motto for a town recognized as the world’s southernmost city. Nestled between the Martial mountain range and the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia has always been the capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, but for 2012, the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War, its sign is claiming a larger geographic scope, one that primarily Argentine governments seem unsettled about, and seemingly episodically to divert attention from domestic issues. It doesn’t seem to be working though as protestors in Buenos Aires, and around the world, gathered on the night of my visit to draw attention to a long list of complaints about their current leader. And the Falklands cause? Even that is smudged as veterans from the war have set up a long-term camp in front of the government building to protest their ill-treatment both during and after the war.
Pulling into the bay at New Island in the Falklands though, thoughts of war and unrest are far from mind. Just over 300 miles east of Argentina and with less than 3,000 residents on nearly 5,000 square miles of land, the islands are left mostly uninhabited by people. New Island, representative of many in the area, has only a few colorfully roofed buildings on an otherwise barren-looking island. Rolling hills are covered in meadow grasses, mosses, low shrubs and impressive boulders. Bright yellow bushes stand out against the otherwise drab brown and green vegetative palette, spectacular but it turns out that this plant, yellow gorse, was introduced by early settlers for its thorny protection and has invasive properties. There are no native trees and the few that exist are tortured specimens on homesteads that have been carefully tended by the island residents. The islands are far from barren though.
Appearing a lot like the centuries-grazed highlands of Scotland, these islands look like a section of Patagonian foothills were transplanted into the distant ocean. Krill-rich waters attract numerous marine mammals, fish and seabirds. The dense grasses and shrubs create insulated habitat for birds and insects, and like most remote islands, there are several endemic representatives. There are no reptiles or amphibians and the only native land mammal, a fox called the warrah, became extinct in the 19th century. All present land mammals – sheep, cows, horses, rabbits, reindeer, as well as predatory foxes, dogs, cats and rats – were all introduced by settlers and help drive the cultivated appearance of the area through grazing. Many breeding bird colonies have shifted to uninhabited islands to escape environmental changes, particularly predation. Nonetheless, around 60 species of birds are known to breed on the islands, including five species of penguin, and most of the world’s Black-browed Albatross population. And the best part is that they’re not hard to find.
On New Island, a short hike up a gentle, grassy slope ends atop a mixed breeding colony of Rockhopper Penguins, Black-browed Albatross and Imperial Shags densely strewn across rugged cliffs. The characteristic guano scent of stale fish and a cacophony of bird squawks alert that the colony is near, but isn’t sufficient warning of the stunning scene just over the hill. Thousands of black and white birds jostle along the rocks and bordering grasses while waves crash into crevasses several stories below and puffy white clouds glide gently through the blue above.
A stop at Carcass Island presents surfing gentoo penguins and uncommonly a lazing leopard seal right on the landing beach. Once satisfied with their swim, gentoos waddle up the dune and meander across green meadows to flop on their bellies in muddy clearings far from the shoreline where their nests are safe from seal predation. Magellanic penguins stand at alert in the same clearing, staying near their cavernous nesting burrows. Hiking further inland along a ridge bordered by steep hills to one side and blue bays lapping against white beaches bookended by impressive rock formations to the other, yields various song birds, shorebirds and even birds of prey. Blackish Cinclodes, Black-throated Finches, and Black-chinned Siskins flit across the ground. A Long-tailed Meadowlark poses prominently on fence posts and brush piles. Magellanic Snipe, Upland Geese and Magellanic Oystercatchers, one with a baby in tow, hide amongst the grasses. Turkey Vultures soar above. A Striated Caracara nestles on her cliff-side nest while a family of Falkland Steamer Ducks glide across the water below. Striated Caracara gather en masse at the local homestead, possibly hoping for hand-outs from the extensive teatime offerings despite their general proclivity for meat.
Even on East Falkland Island, where 2,000 people reside in the colorful capital of Stanley, it doesn’t take long to trade the town setting for rugged hills, stunning vistas and penguin colonies. A local farmer guide introduces the Rockhopper, Gentoo, Magellanic and Macaroni penguins that share his nearby ranch-land with grazing sheep, cattle, horses, the occasional rabbit and several Rufous-chested Dotterels, Correndera Pipits, Dark-faced Ground Tyrants, Grass Wrens, Austral Thrushes, as well as the birds noted on Carcass Island. A relic recoilless gun and remaining quarantined land mind fields are constant reminders of the Argentine occupation. Apparently only the cattle and horses are heavy enough to detonate the explosives though, so land mine areas serve as unintentional wildlife sanctuaries. Gentoos weave through grazing sheep, duck under the guarding fence and scurry down the beach into the water while Magellanic penguins burrow right along the boundary, both apparently oblivious of the remnant political struggles over their lands. As for the human residents, my impression is they just want their freedom to be themselves on their islands. My guide, representative of long-settled families, wants to continue ranching for top-end wool, harvesting peat to warm his home, sharing his wildlife with appreciative tourists, making jams from the diddle dee shrub fruits and growing tomatoes in a soil-filled bathtub in his living room bay window. To me, the Falkland residents are seemingly British through and through. They appreciate the current political situation, but first and foremost, they’re Falkland Islanders, just like the resident penguins.