I travelled to the Falkland Islands as part of an expedition cruise that also took in South Georgia and Antarctica. In this post, I hope I’ve captured some of the essence of what the Falklands are like and what there is to see and do there during your short stay. There’s also some practical information at the bottom. I’ll be adding much more of that over the next few weeks and months, so please come back soon or post your questions in the comments below!
“What even is the plural of albatross?”
It’s not a question I’ve ever considered before. But when you’re balanced precariously on a boggy mound, pointing your camera at hundreds of squawking, flapping – what? Albatross? Albatrosses? Albatri?? – it suddenly takes on an unexpected significance.
And never have I needed to know the plural of the word more, because there are a lot of them here. Their essential plurality is very much in evidence from the noise: the rapid-fire cackling, the persistent trilling of the chicks, the long, sighing caws like weary crows, and, sometimes, the extra-loud battle cries as a squabble breaks out between an albatross and one of the rockhopper penguins with whom they share their space.
These are black-browed albatross (or albatrosses; both are correct, as it turns out), arguably the most elegant of all seabirds: their bellies as crisply white as a silver-service waiter’s shirt, their beaks a delicate Barbie pink, and of course with that artfully smudged black swoosh of eyeliner that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of Vogue.
The colony that I’m peering (and trying not to fall) into is spread out over a cliffside on West Point Island, West Falkland. The albatross have built their nests in patches between bristly clumps of tussock grass; 20 to 30 birds gathered here, another 40 or 50 further down the hill, spilling towards the sea. Some have fluffy chicks, others sit on empty nests; yet more swoop and glide overhead, gracefully riding the thermals on 2-metre wide wings.
They’re certainly far more graceful than we, the onlookers, overdressed for the mild weather in puffy yellow Antarctic-grade parkas. We’re squeezed in around the edges of the colony wherever we can find a stable spot on the lumpy ground, jostling for position and trying to get a good view between the waving grasses without accidentally falling in and landing on an unfortunate seabird. Killing the wildlife is frowned upon here, you see.
Visiting the Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands had never really been top of my bucket list. I had, perhaps, more interest in them than most because my last name is Falk and I idly fancied going to visit my ancestral territories and claiming ownership (well, I’m British, it’s what we DO…), but the idea was never more than a passing whim.
And sadly when I looked into it I discovered that they are not, in fact, Falk Lands, but named after Viscount Falkland, a 17th century Scottish politician who never even came here (he sponsored the explorer who did). Well that’s that, I thought, petulantly. Trip’s off.
But then I got invited to join a friend on a 19-day voyage to South Georgia and Antarctica, and the trip also included two days in the Falklands, so how could I say no? It seemed like fate.
Getting to the Falkland Islands
And so it is that, 18 months later, I find myself aboard the expedition cruise ship Ocean Endeavour bound for the Falklands. We depart from Ushuaia, a quiet tourist town at the southernmost tip of Argentina which, with its outdoor wear shops, artisan chocolate shops and Alpine-chalet-shaped airport terminal feels rather more like an off-season ski resort than the city at the bottom of the world. But like most visitors we are only passing through: just enough time to grab lunch and pick up that vital penguin-shaped fridge magnet before heading to join the floating hotel we’ll call home for the next three weeks.
“Open Sea is also a destination!” enthuses our Expedition Leader as we depart, and for a day it is; I spend several hours on deck watching the seabirds performing acrobatics in our wake as we traverse the 300-miles of ocean between Argentina and the Falklands. But eventually you tire of panning your camera round in circles, and every photo of a brown petrel against the inky water starts to look the same, and soon I want more. More birds, and closer. I won’t be disappointed.
Setting foot on the Falklands
The next morning we arrive at the Falklands, a South Atlantic archipelago consisting of two main islands – East Falkland and West Falkland – and 776 smaller islands. Our first landing site is one of these: New Island, on the western tip.
We are shown how to board a zodiac for the first time: take the driver’s hand in a sailor’s grip, wrist to wrist; step down into the bobbing boat, sit on the inflatable edge, shuffle along to your place. Everyone manages just fine, no one falls in: this is excellent. Then it’s just a short buzz across the bay to a quiet cove where turquoise water laps on a white sandy beach, and the wreck of an old sealing ship sits picturesquely in the shallows, its wooden hull spongy and green with seaweed. It’s like the opening location for a Bond movie, and I’m half expecting Daniel Craig to emerge from the sea in a small pair of trunks. Though that probably wouldn’t have quite the same effect here, given that the water temperature is only about eight degrees.
Peering at penguins on New Island
But we’re not here to look at shipwrecks and Hollywood stars, interesting though they may be. New Island is a nature reserve, considered one of the most beautiful and diverse of all the Falkland Islands, and we’re here to visit some rather smaller but no less engaging personalities.
We hear the Rockhopper penguins before we can see them. They’re small – only about 50 cm tall – and from a distance their black and white plumage camouflages them well against the sandstone cliffs. But in spite of their diminutive stature they can certainly pack a punch when it comes to volume: as we climb the slope towards the colony we’re treated to a cacophony of squawking, braying and honking like a fleet of old cars all failing to start at once.
We spread out around the edge of the colony and settle down on the rocks to watch. We’re not allowed to get too close, but the rockhoppers don’t seem to have received the memo. Several intrepid investigators waddle up to us, peering at us suspiciously with their demonic red eyes for a few moments before deciding we aren’t that interesting after all and jumping away down the slope in the clumsy style that gives them their name.
The rest are too busy with other activities: tending to their chicks, squabbling loudly with their neighbours, preening, nest-building, or simply throwing back their heads and braying. The elegant albatrosses look on disdainfully, clearly pained to have to share their space with such vulgar neighbours. It’s a scene as full of life and drama as any soap opera, and we are captivated.
Admiring albatrosses on West Point Island
And there’s more to come. The Falklands are practically buckling under the weight of their wildlife, with over 200 bird species including over a million penguins, petrels, owls, wrens, vultures and over 80% of all the world’s black-browed albatrosses. So that’s where we’re off to next: West Point Island, home to one of the islands’ largest albatross colonies.
West Point Island is just five miles long and two miles wide and is located off the northwest tip of West Falkland. It has a population of just two people and their dog – the couple who own the island have opened it up to tourism and even supply tea and cakes to passing visitors.
This time it’s a 40-minute hike up and down undulating hillsides studded with thickly-flowered yellow gorse bushes. I’m still wearing my parka and carrying about 10 kilos of camera gear and pretty soon I’m sweating like a flat earther in a globe shop – but I make it eventually and am more than rewarded for my efforts.
Ahead of me the albatross colony slopes down to the sea, the hillside bubbling with the bobbing heads and flapping wings of these striking birds. It’s late afternoon and the light is golden; the tall fronds of vivid green tussock grass sway in the wind and overhead more gleaming albatross circle on the thermals. I watch through my lens and click the shutter repeatedly, trying to capture everything, but it’s impossible.
“There’s far too much to take in here,” sang Elton John – though of course he was mostly talking about Africa, and there are no lions in the Falklands. I guess the overwhelming abundance of albatrosses and penguins will just have to do.
Britishness in Stanley
But the Falkland Islands aren’t just about spectacular wildlife and stunning landscapes and wild windswept places with not a soul in sight (apart from 100 other yellow-clad explorers, of course!) There’s another side to these islands, and to find it we needed to head to the capital, Stanley, around the other side of the archipelago on East Falkland.
Stanley is a colourful little city with just 2500 inhabitants. There’s a very small cathedral, a museum detailing the Islands’ history, several pubs and restaurants, and a handful of tourist shops selling penguins in every conceivable manner and design – if you can put a penguin on it, they have. They also have several red phone boxes, a post office with a red post box outside, a Routemaster bus, and a bronze bust of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Because the Falkland Islands are very proudly British, and they’ll be damned if they let you forget it.
It’s also a quirky place; after all, you have to have a certain sense of humour to live so far away from the rest of the world. As we wander curiously down side streets we pass houses brightly painted in vivid shades of red, blue and green. We buy a copy of the ‘Penguin News’ and read about fishing quotas and Brexit – there’s no getting away from it, even here, thousands of miles from Europe. We stumble upon one of the city’s most famous landmarks: someone’s front lawn, enthusiastically filled with a battalion of garden gnomes. We visit the museum to learn about the Falklands’ history, and then we head for the pub. Well this is still part of Britain, so it’d be rude not to.
You won’t need to spend more than a day exploring, but Stanley’s the best place to discover more about the islands and, if you’re here for longer than a couple of days, it’s a great base for planning the rest of your Falklands adventure. And if nothing else, there’s an excellent supermarket in case you need to stock up on anything for the rest of your South Georgia and Antarctica voyage.
But what about the Falklands War?
Although I’m too young (just!) to remember the Falklands War, it’s something that we in the UK are still conscious of, even all these years later. So I’m curious to know more about it, and where better to do that than the Falklands themselves? It turns out the answers all lie in the Historic Dockyard Museum in Stanley.
There’s always been conflict between the UK and Argentina about who should own the Falklands (known as Las Malvinas in Spanish). British explorers claimed the archipelago in the 18th century, but the Argentinians have always maintained that since they are the closest country, both the Falklands and South Georgia (another British overseas territory) should belong to them. This came to a head in 1982 when Argentinian forces invaded both the Falklands and South Georgia.
The war lasted 74 days and ended when Argentina surrendered. Over 900 people lost their lives, the majority of them Argentine military personnel.
Today Argentina still calls for the return of the islands. So in 2013 they held a referendum to decide the issue once and for all, and 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted to remain British. You’d think that would have settled it, but the debate still rumbles on.
If history is your thing, definitely check out the museum while you’re docked in Stanley, and if you have a bit longer you can also visit 1982 battlefields and military cemeteries. If you keep your eyes peeled, there’s history everywhere.
Why should you include the Falkland Islands as part of your Antarctica cruise?
The Falkland Islands are a loooong way away and pretty hard to get to. But they’re also… how do I put this eloquently… a really cool place to go (OK, maybe I failed on that one)! How many of your friends have been there? Where else are you going to get up close and personal with mad, wild-eyed little penguins who like to throw their weight around, and haughty albatrosses whose disdain for you and all your kin is written all over their faces? Where else will you get that rare combination of breathtaking scenery and wildlife so close you could – and actually might – trip over it?
It’s certainly not cheap to get there, but if you’re already thinking about heading to Antarctica, then it definitely makes sense to add the Falklands onto the itinerary. After all, when are you next likely to be coming this way?
How to get to the Falkland Islands
The vast majority of visitors to the Falkland Islands come like I did, on a cruise ship bound for South Georgia or Antarctica. But you can also add the Falklands to your South America itinerary. Direct flights to Stanley leave from Punta Arenas in Chile about once a week and take about an hour and a half. There is also a new route opening up from Sao Paolo in Brazil. You can check for flights on Skyscanner.
How to get around the Falkland Islands
If you’re visiting on a cruise ship getting around won’t be a problem. You’ll land by zodiac close to where you’re going and walk the rest of the way. If you visit Stanley you will need to walk or be bussed from the port to the town centre. Some cruise companies also arrange day tours from Stanley and of course all transport will be included.
If you’re staying for longer, then getting around is part of the adventure! There are 776 islands and few roads, so most of your travel will be by 4-wheel drive vehicle, ferry, or light aircraft. It’s a fantastic opportunity to really take in the wild natural beauty of this remote landscape.
What currency do they use in the Falkland Islands?
The currency is the Falkland Islands pound. It has parity with UK sterling and normal pounds are accepted too, but Falklands pounds are not accepted in the UK.
What is the weather like in the Falkland Islands?
The Falklands can be pretty chilly, with temperatures ranging between highs of about 15 degrees C in summer and lows of -5 degrees. Although it was quite mild and sunny when I was there it can be pretty grey and rainy, with a significant wind chill factor. So you’ll need to bring warm layers and waterproofs, and don’t forget your camera!
Where can I find more information about the Falkland Islands?
The best place to start is my next post, The Falkland Islands: Frequently Asked Questions
You can also check out the tourist information office site at https://www.falklandislands.com/
My visit to the Falkland Islands was part of a longer trip that also included South Georgia and Antarctica. There is loads more still to come so please do sign up to updates by email to get notifications about new posts, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. And if there’s anything you’d like to know, please comment below so I can include it in the next post!
I travelled to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica with Quark Expeditions in December 2019 – January 2020. I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.