Until the Argentines invaded the British-ruled Falkland Islands and started the 1982 territorial war (the English won), few of us even knew this far-flung archipelago existed. It didn’t take long for word to spread of the stunning wildlife here, and tourism quickly blossomed. Today a Falkland Islands cruise has achieved superlative status as one of life’s great travel adventures.
The two main islands—East and West Falkland—are home to 3,100 hospitable humans who enjoy a daily cuppa and a nightly pint. Sharing the doorstep are 226 species of birds that include nearly 800,000 migrant black-browed albatrosses—nearly two-thirds of the world’s population—and five species of penguin. Enjoy energetic hikes or guided 4X4 tours across stunning terrain to noisy, bustling colonies of gentoo, Magellanic, rockhopper, macaroni and king penguins. The sight of chicks in every stage of development presents a photo and video spectacular.
Not to be outdone, dolphins and pods of orca also call the nutrient-rich waters of the region home, especially around Sea Lion Island. Keep your eyes peeled for the breach of a killer whale. Take a Zodiac inflatable boat ride around tiny rocky islets (there are about 700 in total) to pristine shores where fur seals, raucous sea lions and tubular elephant seals haul out on the rocky reaches. Just imagine being surrounded by playful pups and snapping that perfect portrait of a sweet, whiskered face. Walk the moorlands and tussock-covered hills and discover the delicate flora, which includes 241 vascular plant species. Don’t be surprised by the affable company of a curious ewe—or two! A half million happy sheep outnumber the islanders 200 to one.
Back in the civilized world, explore the tidy and picturesque capital of Port Stanley with its outstanding museum and brightly painted Christ Church Cathedral. Step into a local pub where the welcomes are warm and island tales might include the one about the Falklands’ 248 miles of roads and not a single traffic light (it’s true!). A cruise to the far-flung Falkland Islands is magical and memorable—a sea and land adventure of extraordinary wildlife encounters and the chance to meet the big-hearted people who live in harmony alongside them.
Note: For travelers who wish to further explore the region, many cruises continue to South Georgia—boasting the highest concentration of wildlife on Earth—or to the Antarctic Peninsula. Or, choose a cruise itinerary that combines all three spectacular destinations.
Although a tumultuous history has always branded the Falkland Islands, it also brought this stunning, rugged and windswept archipelago to the attention of world travelers in search of a unique adventure.
The islands were first sighted in 1592 by English seaman John Davis, but it wasn’t for another century that British navigator John Strong stepped ashore—making the first recorded landing in 1690. Over most of the next three centuries, after skirmishes, battles and outright wars, the British managed to keep their flag firmly planted in this wild-spirited land.
The French actually established the first settlement in 1764. Two years later it was handed over to Spain. Argentina repeatedly tried to claim the islands, but Britain stepped in during the early 1800s and took control. Charles Darwin stopped by the Falklands during the Beagle’s second voyage in 1833-34. A small settlement founded on East Falkland in 1859 is still called Port Darwin.
During World War I, on December 8, 1914, the English sank a number of German military ships—the event is documented as “The Battle of the Falklands.” And, during the Second World War, more than 50,000 volunteers, including an impressive horse-mounted rifle unit, manned British military defense outposts on the islands.
Over the next 35 years the English reduced their presence and a relative peace settled across the islands…until April 2, 1982, when the Argentines decided to invade, igniting a full-scale war that made the Falkland Islands the headlines of every major newspaper in the world. Within seven weeks, and with former enemy France feeding them secret information, the British sent a huge expedition to the region. The battles were fierce—236 British and 750 Argentine soldiers paid with their lives—and Argentina surrendered on June 14, formally agreeing to never use military force there again.
The lovely, hardy Falklanders (or “Kelpers,” as they often call themselves) commemorate the battles sites with monuments across East and West Falkland. The year 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the last war. Economically, the islands have been challenged throughout the years. Sheep stations proliferated during the 19th and 20th centuries, but the fall of the price of wool meant a lack of income for much of the population. If the Falkland War had a benefit, it was to alert the world to the existence of the islands in general, and to their amazing natural wonders.
Today offshore fishing and tourism have stabilized the economy. Most of the islanders live in and around the capital of Stanley—a charming city with an array of fascinating sights, including an exceptional museum. Nearly 60 percent of the population is native born, many counting back as far as six generations.
The obvious respect locals have for the birds and wildlife with which they share their home is humbling and inspiring. Every nook and cranny of coastline—from rocky coves to tussock hills and white-sand beaches—is home to numerous species, and the islanders have them all accounted for. Photographers and nature lovers who arrive on a Falkland Islands cruise are richly rewarded with scenic vistas and phenomenal opportunities for wildlife viewing—including 227 avian species and five species of penguins, which total about one million in number.
Among the many highlights is Volunteer Point on East Falkland, which covers three penguin species in one go—Magellanic, gentoo and king. Saunders Island teems with wildlife and offers close encounters with these same penguin species, plus one—the rockhopper, named for its agile ability to scale cliff walls to its nest. Tiny Sea Lion Island boasts all five species of penguins (add macaroni to the list) plus huge colonies of cormorants. The striated caracara (Johnny Rocks to the locals) are delightfully inquisitive and all but beg for a close-up photo. Hundreds of beached elephant seals offer up a handsome portrait as well. Just offshore, watch for Peale’s dolphins and pods of orca. The working sheep farm on picturesque Carcass Island (named for a survey ship), presents a fascinating glimpse into the labor-intensive process and lifestyle that once sustained the islands.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER