Falkland Islands 2018 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Dec 20, 2018

The Falkland Islands are world-renowned for exceptional wildlife photography opportunities.  The islands are about 300 miles east of the southern end of South America.  Our tour visited three of the best locations:  Sea Lion, Saunders, and Carcass islands.  Getting to the Falklands is a bit complicated, in that currently there is only one flight per week to and from the islands every Saturday, departing from Santiago, Chile.  Miss the flight, and you have to wait another week.  No problem for our group of seven, as we all arrived a couple of days early at our Santiago hotel just in case there were luggage problems or travel delays.

Once in the Falklands you travel between islands via FIGAS, the Falkland Islands Government Air Service.  FIGAS operates an "on demand" schedule with several aircraft.  You contact FIGAS, tell them when and where you need to be, and they schedule a flight.  The actual flight times and the actual route taken between islands depends on how many people need to fly where on any given day, the weight limit of the aircraft in use, and, of course, the weather.  On our transfer between Sea Lion and Saunders, four of us went on a direct flight, while our remaining three made two additional stops to accommodate other Falkland travelers.

Rockhopper penguins Falkland IslandsThe wildlife in the Falklands is impressive.  There are four breeding species of penguin (gentoo, rockhopper, Magellanic, and king), large colonies of black-browed albatross and imperial cormorants, tame striated caracaras, easily found snipe, loads of smaller birds such as long-tailed meadowlarks and rufous-chested dotterels, geese everywhere (upland, ruddy headed, and kelp species), plus endemics such as Falkland flightless steamer ducks and Cobb's wrens.  While birds are the star photographic attraction on the Falklands, there are also elephant seals, sea lions, and orca whales.

Besides having lots of wildlife subjects, the other aspect of the Falklands that I personally find so attractive is the lack of people.  The entire population is around 3500 but the vast majority, about 2500, live in Stanley, the only real "town."  The rest of the people are scattered at farm settlements throughout the archipelago. 

Our first location was Sea Lion Island, a relatively flat but windswept island about five miles long by a half mile wide.  Like all the Falklands it is treeless—the only trees you'll ever find in the Falklands have been planted by the locals, usually for windbreaks.  The island is a National Nature Reserve and has no introduced livestock.  No fences either, so you can walk anywhere.  The island has no rats or feral cats to predate ground nesting birds which thrive on the island.  For that matter Sea Lion is the most important breeding location in the Falklands for southern elephant seals.  The one and only lodge can accommodate 20 people maximum, but during the six nights we were at the lodge the guest count never got above 12, including our group of seven.  To say we were not shoulder to shoulder with other photographers is a laughable statement. 

Elephant seal pup on the Falkland IslandsOur second location was the "Neck" on Saunders.  Saunders is home to one large farm of about 30,000 acres.  The northern part of the island has two large hills with a thin strip of low lying land between the hills known as the Neck.  It is 10 miles via a four-wheel-drive road from the farm settlement, and has a self-catering cabin with 24-hour power, one main room flanked by two bedrooms with bunks, plus standard kitchen and bath.  In other words, we were totally on our own for the next four nights.  We could walk anywhere we wished at any time, photograph whenever we wanted.  With a sand beach on either side of the Neck we had easy opportunities to work penguins going and coming from the ocean.  On the closest hillside was a large rockhopper penguin colony, with black-browed albatross just a bit further.

Our final photo location was at Carcass Island, just a short flight from Saunders.  One full day was spent at nearby West Point Island, accessed by a 90-minute boat trip.  On West Point we worked a very large albatross colony for most of the afternoon, then finished our stay at West Point with what became known as "the great meadowlark shoot."  Male long-tailed meadowlarks have brilliant red breasts, and about a dozen males were in full territorial display mode. 

From Carcass we flew to Stanley, to spend one night in town before the flight back to Santiago the following afternoon.  I will be leading a Falklands tour again in 2020 and am more than excited about returning there.  The Falklands are extremely high on my list of favorite photo locations.

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