The Falkland Islands Preserve Wildlife and Habitat After War

The isolated Falklands, best known for sheep and a brief war, offer a living lesson in what happens when nature is allowed to flourish.

By Paul Nicklen
photographs by Paul Nicklen
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:41 BST
Steeple Jason, one of the more remote islands, hosts the world’s largest colony of black-browed albatrosses. ...
Steeple Jason, one of the more remote islands, hosts the world’s largest colony of black-browed albatrosses. Once used to graze hundreds of sheep and cattle, it’s now a nature reserve. About 70 percent of the black-browed albatross population nests in the Falklands.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen
This story appears in the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On the rocky shores of Steeple Jason, a distant island in the Falklands archipelago, I am awed by the magnificence before me. More than 440,000 black-browed albatrosses, the world’s largest colony, nest on steep cliffs. Along the beach below, southern rockhopper penguins call loudly. The always relentless striated caracaras—known as Johnny rooks—scout for penguin chicks or carrion to eat.

The frigid waters host South American fur seals, orcas, Commerson’s dolphins, Peale’s dolphins, and sei whales. Underwater I swim through a majestic kelp forest that sways gently. Gentoo penguins dart above me, southern sea lions in hot pursuit. Lobster krill line up on the seafloor, pincers raised, as if for battle.

Gentoo penguins swim at the fastest speed clocked for a bird: 22 miles an hour. They’ll spend the entire day hunting in the ocean, generally close to shore, and trying not to be hunted by seals, sea lions, and orcas. The Falkland Islands shelter the most gentoo breeding pairs in the world.
A sun star clings to tree kelp in the chilly South Atlantic off the coast of Bird Island in what looks like an underwater rain forest. The ridges that form the Falklands force nutrients up from the deep, creating a rich marine world that attracts all manner of fish, mammals, and birds.

The imagery is fitting. I am, after all, in the Falklands. War is a common theme. About 250 miles off the coast of Argentina, the British territory consists of more than 700 islands and islets, sparsely settled by about 3,200 people. Best known for the long history of disputes over the land, involving France, Spain, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, the archipelago wears the scars of war openly. The last conflict, when Argentina invaded the islands it claims as the Malvinas in 1982, ended after a brief but intense engagement with the United Kingdom. Roughly 20,000 land mines have not been accounted for, burned-out helicopters mar the landscape, and the Royal Air Force still has an active airfield on East Falkland.

A male southern sea lion, about 2.5 metres long and 375 kilograms, looms over a female and two pups on an island informally known as Stick-in-the-Mud. The population declined in the mid-20th century when the animals were hunted and also had trouble finding food in a period of warm ocean temperatures. Now they’re the most abundant marine mammal in southern South America, with about 7,500 in the Falklands.

But for all the conflict—and despite extensive sheep farming—the islands appear surprisingly utopian. From the nutrient-rich ocean waters to the rain-sprinkled mountains, I’ve rarely encountered such an intact ecosystem in almost three decades as a photographer.

Steeple Jason and neighboring Grand Jason, two islands untouched by war, might be the greatest Falklands success stories. Sheep and cattle grazed relentlessly on the otherwise uninhabited islands for nearly a century before a British bird lover acquired them in 1970. He turned the islands into a private sanctuary, and the vegetation began to recover. In the 1990s, New York hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt bought the islands, and in 2001 he and his wife, Judy, donated them to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns and manages them. Researchers and tourists have been allowed only on carefully controlled visits.

Near New Island, Peale’s dolphins swim by kelp growing close to shore, where they often search for food. Native to the Falklands and southern South America, they typically travel in groups of between two and 20. They can be acrobatic and appear to enjoy surfing the bow waves of boats.

Fast-forward to today, and the resiliency of nature is in evidence everywhere around me. The diversity on display is as if the Pacific Northwest, the West Indies, and Antarctica had collided in the South Atlantic. On five-mile-long Steeple Jason, 48 bird species have been observed. But the extraordinary profusion of Falklands wildlife still faces man-made risks: pollution, degraded habitat, oil slicks, baited hooks dragged behind fishing vessels, and, notably, climate change. The ocean may cool around the islands and warm farther away, disrupting the food web that nourishes seabirds and marine mammals. Increased oil exploration near the islands has also raised concerns about a devastating spill. The Falkland Islanders, though, have a growing incentive to embrace conservation. With more than 60,000 tourists visiting a year, ecotourism is now the second largest source of revenue, behind fishing and ahead of sheep farming.

As a trained biologist, I can’t help but be obsessed with the difference between the islands left alone and the islands touched by our heavy hand. What can we learn from Steeple Jason’s abundance? There is hope, and there is healing, if we choose to let nature be. Exploring the island’s sloping grasslands and looming mountains is like walking back a thousand years in time. The ecosystem pristine. The wildlife extravagant. The animals unafraid of us.

King penguins stroll on the white sand of Volunteer Point on East Falkland island. Small numbers were seen in the islands in the 1860s, but in the 1970s the population began to increase steadily. A thousand breeding pairs now frequent the beach, which became a private reserve 50 years ago.

Mischievous Johnny rooks try to steal items out of my camera bag. Albatrosses hover overhead, suspended on the constant updrafts that blow off the Atlantic. One taps the back of my head lightly with its feet as it passes above me. I imagine it does so on purpose; these are precise birds. Where else can animals feel so free to engage in play with the likes of us? More important, how can we help them remain so unafraid? If we keep treating our fragile Earth simply as a place for resources to be extracted, it will continue to suffer. I see Steeple Jason as a testament to Earth’s resiliency but also a call for urgency. We need more Steeple Jasons, more places where we stop waging war on the environment and give nature the time it needs to flourish.

Paul Nicklen, a photographer, filmmaker, and marine biologist who was raised in the Canadian Arctic, has documented wildlife around the world for National Geographic.
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