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03/03/2009

West Point Island, Carcass Island

A glorious sunrise lit up the low lying islands of the West Falklands, while black-browed albatrosses and sooty shearwaters banked above the white caps. We had arrived in one of the most important albatross nesting areas on the planet, where 80% of the world’s black-browed albatrosses come to mate and raise their young. Blue-eyed shags flew along beside us, their curiosity luring them over to supervise our arrival at their fishing grounds.

Our morning stop was at West Point Island, a 3,100 acre island with an attractive settlement on its eastern shore. Eighteenth century sealers are thought to have been the island’s first visitors, and soon the island’s protected harbor became a base for sealing operations in the area. We landed on a rickety wooden pier just below the home of Lily and Roddy Napier. We had the option of hiking up and across the island to the quartzite outcropping known as the Devil’s Nose, or catching a ride there in a land rover. Beautiful green moorlands spread out in front of us, and we enjoyed the opportunity to meander through the grasslands.

Soon we arrived at the other side, where we descended into the tussac grass and to the edge of a mixed colony of nesting black-browed albatross and rockhopper penguins. Single albatross chicks were patiently perched atop the perfect columnar mud nests constructed by their parents during the spring. We witnessed the arrival of some parents back from feeding at sea, which then promptly began regurgitating food to their huge and hungry downy chick. Scattered in among all of this activity were groups of molting rockhopper penguins, their bright yellow plumes jutting out above their eyes. Their task of the day seemed to be sleeping, which was not surprising since molting requires a whole lot of waiting and fasting.

After ample time for taking in this amazing scene, we began our return trip across the island’s saddle and back to the settlement. Striated caracaras loitered all around the buildings, including a few which sat with us in the garden. After feasting on pastries and tea, we returned to the Minerva for lunch where we dared not eat too much, so we’d have an appetite for ‘round two’ of tea and pastries later in the afternoon.

Captain Giovanni Biasutti welcomed us back onboard, and told us that a surprise was awaiting us on the pool deck. There we found the Minerva quartet rocking out on the deck, and sausages and hot dogs grilling out under the blue sky. We ate while looking out on the spectacular kelp forests and rocky coastline; meanwhile, the ship made its way to our afternoon stop at Carcass Island.

Carcass Island is named for a ship which visited there during the late 18th century. The availability of abundant cover, and the absence of cats, rats and mice throughout the island’s history, has made for a very healthy population of small birds. The most noticeable were the tussac birds which were actively foraging for invertebrates in the dried piles of kelp on the beach. Some were so fearless that they came over and pecked at our boots. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins were scattered on the beach, and pairs of the 4 kg Falkland steamer ducks vocalized from the shallows. But the stars at the landing beach were the Commerson’s dolphins, which followed the zodiacs around and surfed the small breakers. Their silhouettes against the brilliant white sand bottom were a sight to behold.

After walking the beach, we climbed up into the tussac past groups of molting gentoo penguins until we reached the fence line, which we followed all the way along the coast to the settlement. The rocky shoreline was hosted by both species of oystercatchers, which were searching the crevices for limpets and other intertidal snacks. Kelp geese were grazing the green algae along the shore, while a lone black-crowned night heron hunted fish in a large intertidal pond. We wandered through the spectacular cypress trees planted around the house, and headed inside for a cup of tea and the opportunity to thank our hosts, Rob and Lorraine McGill. Striated caracaras watched over our boots outside the door, while we heard stories about life on this lovely and remote island. We snapped our last photos of tussac birds along the shoreline, and then boarded a zodiac back to the Minerva.

After a quick shower, we grabbed a cocktail and headed to the Darwin lounge for Recap. We talked about the day’s encounters with the albatrosses and dolphins, and then Naturalist JJ Apestegui read a hilarious letter about the Falklands “WC”. Expedition Leader Aaron Russ went over our plans for the next day, and then we spilled out to dinner followed by a cocktail on deck in the calm West Falkland winds.
 

   

At West Point Island we walk to the Black-browed Albatross colony and photograph the chicks on their pedestal nests.

The albatross chicks are easily approached and still wear some of the baby down.

In the Napier's garden, many Johnny Rooks (Striated Caracara) come to share the excitement (and lovely tea cakes).

After lunch we proceed to Carcass Island, where we enjoy walking and observing the plentiful bird life.

We are given a warm welcome and a delicious tea by the island's owners, Rob and Lorraine McGill.


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