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An Antarctic Expedition: Volume III

Sauntering around Saunders Island

One of our final stops in the Falklands was Saunders Island, the second largest island in the northwest of the West Falklands. It was named after a British Admiral, Sir Charles Saunders, who first settled here in the 18th century, after Captain James Cook first discovered the area in 1775. Saunders is roughly 21km wide and boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the region. The highest point is Mount Richards, which stands 457m above sea level and is home to one of the world’s largest black-browed albatross colony.

Penguins everywhere! Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

The terrain is diverse here; rocky outcrops dominate the cliff faces while white sand beaches stretch and sweep the coastline. These pockets of diversity provide unique opportunities for flora and fauna to flourish. Magellanic penguins are poised on grassy hills and burrow themselves away, protecting their eggs from prying eyes (and mouths!). Rockhoppers congregate in their usual rocky spots, alongside the black-browed albatross. The largest colony, located near the Neck of the island, attracts as many as 12,000 albatross pairs during breeding season in September. Thousands of nests constructed from grass, seaweed, mud and guano litter the rocky slopes of Mount Richards.

A black-browed albatross gliding high above, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

White sand beach on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

We anchored off the island on a gloriously balmy summer’s day down in the southern hemisphere. It was about 5 degrees Celsius, which, for this time of year, was considered warm. The wind chill however made for an eye-watering experience. Naturally, I was decked head to toe in my seventeen thousand layers as I easily feel the cold. On this particular occasion, I decided to debut my duvet or puffer scalf as I like to call it. To my surprise, I acquired some strange looks from both guests and my fellow expedition team members during the course of the afternoon, but I didn’t mind as I was toasty warm!

Whilst I was on Saunders Island, I was stationed along the busy walkway next to a whale skeleton. The Pole-Evans family who own the island shared the story of the juvenile female sei whale that recently stranded on this very beach. After the necropsy, the whale was transported up to the hillside to be displayed. Nowadays, it is missing part of its ribcage and vertebrae but is a fascinating specimen and evidence of marine activity in the surrounding ocean. I was telling passing guests about the skeleton and how it came to be in this spot. Many people were intrigued by the story but were more impressed by the size of the whale. Adult sei whales can grow up to 18m in length and often frequent the surrounding waters. Interestingly, in 2021, the Falkland Islands were recognised as a global hotspot for sei whales and were confirmed as a Key Biodiversity Area after years of research into their population behaviour and dynamics. ~500 individuals have been recorded since surveys began in 2017, highlighting the area as a key feeding location for southern sei whales.

Alongside the juvenile sei whale skeleton was an unidentified dolphin skeleton. Jenna and I had a good go at identifying it based on the evidence we could see. Given the size of the animal, the presence of a rostrum and the shape of its teeth, we deemed it a dolphin of some kind. We could rule out porpoises because the skull had conical shaped teeth and porpoises have spade shaped teeth. We could also rule out Commerson’s dolphins, even though they are frequently seen here, the skeleton was too large. The surrounding waters often attract Peale’s dolphins so we both thought it could have been one of these, but hourglass dolphins are also very occasionally seen in the region. Guests also had a crack at identifying the skeleton and we ended up carrying out a spontaneous field workshop, discussing different features between cetaceans and which species can be found nearby. Guests were very intrigued and enjoyed the interaction!

Juvenile female sei whale skeleton, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

Unidentified dolphin skeleton, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

The island is surrounded by shallow, turquoise waters that lap rhythmically against the shore. I watched the swash engulf many an unsuspecting penguin that bathed casually by the tideline. Magellanic and gentoo penguins were the most active swimmers on the island and flittered around here and there, foraging for krill and small fish. This part of the bay is also excellent for spotting cetaceans and we managed to observe a small pod of Commerson’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii) frolicking in the shallow waves. They are very cute dolphins, or as I like to call them sea-pandas, due to their stark black and white colourations. Their heads are entirely black, along with their dorsal, pectoral fins and fluke, while their body and flanks remain a bright white. They are a curious and active species, often approaching people in water, interacting with small vessels and breaching above the waves.

Much like West Point, Saunders is an Important Bird Area (IBA) and is home to five species of breeding penguin, along with a myriad of other fascinating wildlife. Rockhoppers, gentoos, king and magellanic penguins all nest here in the summer months. Macaroni penguins have been observed from time to time but are not a common occurrence, and visitors are unlikely to see them. Gentoos pretty much dominate the island… they are everywhere you look. These penguins have a distinctive white patch above the crown of their heads, a black and orange beak and bright orange feet. They are the second largest penguin to inhabit the Falkland Islands, king penguins being the largest, and stand at approximately 78cm tall. The Falkland Islands are home to the world’s largest population of gentoo penguin. A recent census recorded ~121,500 breeding pairs! Roughly 6,700 gentoo penguins nest around the Neck of Saunders Island and can be seen gathering rocks and pebbles to build and maintain their nests.

Magellanic penguins chilling on the beach, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

Nest-building gentoo! Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

A gentoo enjoying a beach walk on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

A gentoo penguin having a cheeky sunbathe, Saunders Island, Falkland Islands, 2022.

Breeding season for gentoos tends to start around springtime in September, with two large eggs being subsequently laid in October. In colder regions this is delayed until around December. After brooding for around 4 weeks, the chicks start to congregate in larger numbers… yes you guessed it, in crèches. Eventually, the chicks must engage in what is known as ‘chick chase’, whereby the chicks have to quite literally chase their parents around the beaches in order to be fed. This is thought to build up the strength and independence of the fast growing chick, whilst also luring them closer to the sea. By January, they have fully moulted and are ready to take the plunge for themselves in February. Gentoos are opportunistic feeders, generally targeting small crustaceans like squat lobster, but largely eat krill and small fish like blue whiting. They tend not to stray too far from the coastline whilst foraging, ranging ~20km from shore.

It was fascinating to see gentoo penguins running here, there and everywhere in search of rocks, pebbles and debris to build up their nests. While they are adorable birds that waddle around somewhat clumsily, they don’t half make a racket. The hullabaloo was entertaining to witness; penguins squawked and screeched all afternoon long, seemingly complaining or conversing with one another about something to no end. I got used to the endless chatter very quickly and actually greatly appreciated it. It’s not every day you get to listen to a cacophony of penguin noise! We finally sailed away from Saunders Island late evening and made for our next adventure, South Georgia!

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