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03/04/2009

Steeple Jason Island, New Island

The wind had shifted to the north during the night, and picked up quite a bit as well. Expedition Leader Aaron Russ announced that we would be making a landing on the protected southwest side of Steeple Jason Island, and so we donned our gear and waterproofed our cameras in preparation for the trip ashore. The numbers of albatrosses spiraling above the zodiac was impressive, perhaps only matched by the raucous crowd of belligerent caracaras waiting for us at the landing. We climbed up the rocky shoreline to the flat grassy area above, and headed out to explore the island.

A large gentoo colony was situated just above the landing, many of the birds lounging around in varied stages of molting their feathers. Tussac birds could be seen darting around everywhere, coming right up to us and tilting their heads sideways to better understand what we were. We crossed the narrow isthmus to Steeple Jason’s northeast coast, where gentoo penguins were coming and going from the frothy sea.

Another destination was the remains of an old sealers’ camp, where large rusty trypots served as reminders of the island’s past. Much of the wildlife harvested here were actually penguins, which were rounded up, clubbed and rendered down for their oil by the thousands during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Large numbers of penguin bones still litter the area. The line of flags the staff put up to mark the way was under assault by the striated caracaras, which did their best to knock the bright orange flags to the ground.

Some of us opted for the long hike off to the west, which skirted above the tussac grass ultimately arriving at a viewpoint where we could see a substantial portion of the 157,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses that nest here on Steeple Jason Island. We meandered down through the tussac, which towered well over our heads, following the sounds of the albatrosses to arrive at the edge of the colony. We found ourselves looking out across the largest albatross colony in the world, and it was a majestic sight indeed! The large grey chicks dominated the scene, but several pairs of adults were going through their repertoire of courtship displays and calls. Rockhopper penguins were scattered about, and striated caracaras and Falkland skuas were brawling over a dead albatross chick they were scavenging. We headed back up above the tussac and wandered back towards the landing site, admiring the large burrows of Magellanic penguins along the way.

We arrived back on the Minerva during late morning, and spent some time on deck admiring all the albatrosses around the ship while we were sailing south towards our afternoon stop at New Island. The smell of a barbeque lured us out onto the pool deck, and we sat outside watching South American fur seals porpoising around the ship.

During the afternoon, we arrived at New Island, which is the most remote of all the inhabited islands in the Falklands. From as early as 1774 and for a half a century onwards, New Island has provided a refuge for whaling ships. Now, the island is divided into two wildlife reserves. Tony and Kim Chater are the island’s only permanent residents, and they greeted us upon our arrival at the main landing beach.

Some of us opted for a long hike, which crested two saddles before dropping down to the Settlement rookery, a mixed colony of black-browed albatrosses, rockhopper penguins and blue-eyed shags. Others headed straight to the seabird colony, finding the perfect rock to sit on and watch this amazing wildlife spectacle unfold. Large shag chicks stood around waiting for the arrival of one of their parents, which they aggressively chased around begging for food. Finally the food came, and they forcefully stuck their bills way down the parent’s throat to claim the prize. Skuas and caracaras did their best to disrupt the family reunion in order to run off with spilled regurgitated food.

The weather turned towards the end of the landing, and we roamed back towards the landing beach in a foggy mist. Back on the ship, we secured our belongings for the open sea before heading to dinner followed by a restful night’s sleep.
 

   

Reaching the Steeple Jason rookery involved a tussock grass adventure!

This little Gentoo Penguin never read the rule book about keeping your distance!

Ralph Eshelman discovers a sealer's trypot on Steeple Jason Island.

On New Island we meet the youngest residents, delightful Jack and Rosie Chater.

It's with a touch of sadness that we leave New Island, our last landing before Ushuaia, Argentina.


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