Why did I choose this long trip, I ask myself. What difference will it make if I see one kind of penguin instead of five species of them? I am in Antarctica on a 20-day trip with Quark Expeditions and though we've been at sea only a few days, I'm worried I've made a mistake choosing the longer trip.
But here we are, about to board Zodiacs and land in the Falkland Islands, which Argentina invaded in 1982. Prince Andrew, then a helicopter pilot, arrived with the British Royal Navy and received more press than the 11-week war itself. Our first landing is on West Point Island, which has nothing to do with war or cadets, and whose "troops" are 500 pairs of breeding Rockhopper Penguins and 2,100 pairs of Black-Browed Albatrosses.
Very civilized landing this one -- right on a dock even though I'm wearing the rubber boots they've issued us. I walk uphill about a mile to the rookery, past trees bent at 45 degree angles to the ground by the wind, and fields of yellow flowers and silvery green sea cabbage plants.
Marine biologist and expedition team member Richard Price, who spent over a year as a scientist in the Antarctic, is waiting at the top of the hill. He tells us follow to the red flags through the tussock grass clumps because there might be nesting penguins beneath. Jumping the muddy and slippery clumps is like trying to jump on top of tree trunks, Plop. I slip and fall on the ground, muddying my brand new yellow expedition jacket.
Less than two feet away a penguin stares at me with small red eyes, her chick at her downy breast. We look at each other for a second and then I get up and leave because this is her turf, and I'm an uninvited guest. Further along the trail I hear a loud screech. Directly in front of me a caracara bird chases a screaming penguin who scurries into a little hole beneath the tussock, safe. The caracara gives up.
The red flags continue uphill through the tussock where the raucous braying gets louder. I part some blades of thick grass and see the rookery. Hundreds of Rockhopper Penguins and Black-browed Albatrosses sit on rocks and tussock clumps, wheezing, clucking, and whistling. The albatrosses are docile, barely moving on their nests, but the penguins are wound up little whirligigs. They raise their beaks to the sky and bray, moving their little spiky heads up and down, side to side, and flapping their little flippers as though they expected to fly away. When the little Rockhoppers walk, they waddle, using their stubby tails for balance and their flippers like outstretched arms. They have black crests and bright yellow "eyebrows" which look like feathers dangling down the side of their faces. Think Keith Richards with spiky black hair and dangling feathers.
The trail leads to a grassy field with a narrow stream. Six little Rockhoppers waddle to the water, jump in and out, waddle a few steps, flap their flippers, shake their furry black and white bodies, and repeat the ritual again and again. I am sitting so close I can hear their webbed feet slap against the rocks and their beaks snap.
The path leads to Devil's Nose, a steep cliff with stone ledges where hundreds of Black-Browed Albatrosses nest on the rocks, their snowy breasts almost iridescent in the sunlight. They croak and point their pinkish beaks to the sky, and kiss by pecking each other's beaks. This cliff is not only their breeding ground, but also their airport. Albatrosses are so heavy they depend on the wind to lift them into the air, and this promontory is perfect. Every few minutes, an albatross walks to the edge of the rock, spreads its huge wings (wingspans range from six to ten feet) and leaps into the sky, webbed feet dangling in the air.
We sail during lunch and then go by Zodiac to Saunders Island. I step out of the boat amidst thousands of penguins gathered along the beach, bleating like sheep. Some have chicks which look like little grey fur balls. I go up the hill taking care not to step in holes where penguins are sitting on their chicks. At the top of the hill are thousands of albatrosses making eh-eh-eh-eh sounds.
The wind is now blasting across the beach -- 55 knots an hour, says Cheli, the expedition leader. It takes four crew members to push the Zodiac through the big waves into the rough sea. We're splashed but stay dry with our rain jackets, rain pants and rubber boots. The Zodiac bobs up and down like a water park ride.
The next morning we pull into Stanley, the Falklands capital and where the "conflict" began. A huge cruise ship is in port, and to avoid the hundreds of passengers crammed into the souvenir shops, I walk along the harbor towards the Falkland Island Museum. On the way, I pass the wreck of the Jhelium, a ship built in Liverpool in 1849 that is now half-submerged in the Stanley waters. The museum has some china and silver from the Jhelium shipwreck as well as a restored symphonium (which still plays), telescopes, typewriters, an Orpheus mechanical zither, swords, and the original framed letter of surrender from the 1982 conflict.
Today happens to be race day in Stanley and the entire village is here at the track, a mile-long patch of grass. It's only ten a.m., but most of the men and teenagers are holding two bottles of open beer and drinking from a third. The loudspeaker announces that most of the horses are lame, so only two horses will run the first race. The two horses tear down the track, but no one shows any interest. The "Racehorse Bar," is jammed and there's a long line at the betting window. I don't stay for the next event, the women's tug of war, because no one seems to have signed up.
The cemetery overlooks the harbor at the other end of town on a wind-swept grassy hill. Above one grave is a plaque to Nurse Barbara Marion Chick, born in 1948, died 1984. It thanks her for her service to the patients at the hospital and ends "Grief is not forever, love is." A perfect way to remember Stanley.
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