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Conservation in the Falkland Islands is restoring the native tussac habitat. This is great news for endemic birds and basking pinnipeds – but it can make life difficult for researchers.
When the chance came for me to voyage through the Southern Ocean I grabbed it. For the past 20 years I have worked almost exclusively in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. It has been hard: uncomfortable beds, long days of walking, and every living thing out to get me.
While trying consciously not to stumble into tigers or elephants, I would be unconsciously walking over aggressive vines or barbed rattan, brushing up against poisonous caterpillars, or surreptitiously being fed upon by parasites. And then there was the wearying heat and humidity that made me feel twice as heavy but half as strong.
By comparison, a trip through the Southern Ocean would be a breeze. Cool weather, a comfortable bed every night, regular food, no insects, and, unless I fell overboard and landed on a leopard seal, no dangerous animals. It appeared just the antidote to tropical fever.
The first part of the journey was a circumnavigation of the Falkland Islands. Two days in and my dreams had been shattered. I was sunburnt, hungry, and frightened of the wildlife. The temperature was definitely cooler than an average equatorial day but the sun was stronger, spilling down from a clear sky unfiltered by the smoke of burning forests.
Seasickness and the menu prepared by our French chef (who had no concept of or sympathy for vegetarians) meant I ate almost nothing – I never expected my first sighting of guanaco or reindeer to be on a plate served with fried onions. The first night I slept on the bridge – a hard metal floor without a blanket – feeling too mortally ill to venture into the bowels of the boat.
I had also been wrong-footed by the wildlife. The Falkland Islands seemed the safest of places. There are no native terrestrial mammals, especially dangerous ones. The endemic Falkland wolf, or warrah, which Darwin saw, was reportedly snarly on occasion, but not dangerous. And even if it were, its time has passed. Sheep farmers destroyed it as they did the thylacine in Tasmania, and now there are no warrah left. There are no reptiles, and few insects either.
The Falklands is renowned for birds, though, and I did have a Hitchcock moment when a Falkland’s skua pecked me on the head and drew blood after I inadvertently walked too close to its portly chick. But the real scare came from something I hadn’t expected – a sea lion.
Despite a lifetime of wildlife watching I had never seen a pinniped (or fin-footed mammal) outside of a zoo. It is often the case that the first sighting of a truly wild animal does not match the familiar notion. The first fully-grown wild male chimpanzee I saw bore no resemblance to the tea party crowd I had witnessed as a child in London Zoo.
Similarly, the first sea lion I encountered was not what I expected. Sea lions are genetic cousins of the bears, and a male sea lion appears like a waterborne grizzly – more bearlike than cat and can be 2.5 metres long and weigh over 300 kg.
Originally, the Falkland Islands had been covered by tall tussac grass. This had also been almost eradicated by sheep farmers, and it survives now only on isolated islands.
Some of the native endemic birds, such as Cobb’s Wren, relied on the tussac habitat and are now only found where it still occurs. Fauna & Flora International has previously supported conservation work on this species through a flagship species grant. Sea lions also like the tussacs, and they haul themselves off the beach to rest amongst them.
The tussacs are dense and can be over two metres high. Negotiating them can be a problem at the best of times. I had been warned about basking sea lions and it didn’t take long for me to find one. The tussacs were sparse at this point and I saw it easily. However, at the far end of the island I entered an area where they were low and dense.
When the tussacs die they leave a smooth russet-coloured mound. I negotiated these where possible as it made the going easier. In a particularly difficult area I leapt onto what I thought was one of these mounds only to feel it squash beneath my foot like a toasted marshmallow.
I heard a sharp ‘ohhtt’ and immediately realised I had landed on a sea lion. I could almost feel the bacteria-covered teeth severing my femoral artery, and thought, “I’ll bleed to death before I can reach help.”
Instinctively I bounced backwards and landed sprawled a couple of metres away. Thankfully, the sea lion hadn’t got the chance to bite, or been injured by my carelessness. But I was certainly spooked and still had the tussac-covered island to cross.
I trod with great circumspection but almost stumbled over two more sea lions before I returned. By the day’s end I was gripped by sea lion paranoia and wishing myself back in the predictable rain forest.
Over the next two months I was to have close encounters with a number of other pinnipeds: obstreperous fur seals, docile southern elephant seals, and the reptile-like leopard seal.
I learned from the local researchers I met that most field workers in South Georgia get bitten at least once by a fur seal, especially during the height of the breeding season when the beaches are covered in males guarding their harems.
Despite the fact that these mammals are large carnivores it hadn’t occurred to me that they might pose a threat. But of course, with all field research, it pays to know what to look out for. It seems that a good maxim for researchers might be ‘different habitats, different dangers’. But as the saying goes, we are all better off with the devil we know.