Since our introduction to penguins in New Zealand, we have become somewhat fixated on these beautiful and exotic birds. Having the opportunity to be within a few feet of the majestic king penguin was exhilarating. Even though the world population is estimated at 2 million, there are only a handful of places around the world were they can be seen. With their stark black, white and orange/gold coloration, they are mesmerizing to watch, and because of the timing of our voyage, we were able to see the puffy, brown young penguins, as well.
Around the Falklands, there are over 100,000 breeding pairs of the gentoo, smaller than the king with a white belly, black back, a fleck of white near the eye and a orange peak. The Magellanic is smaller than the gentoo, and has a white circle on it's face. Numbers on this bird are declining, and the population figures are unknown. At the point, two rangers are on site to monitor safety, and human interaction with the birds.
As far as the eye could see, the 3 varieties of penguins were spread over the 2-mile white sand beach and adjacent grassy flats. We were given about 1 1/2 hours to roam, as desired, among the groups with few restrictions. Persons are not allowed on certain areas of the beach, and penguins cannot be approached within several feet, but if they approach you, which they frequently do, it's okay for them to walk up and check you out. The kings seemed to have a more reserved, stately personality, but the gentoos appeared to be more social and playful. The allotted time seemed much too short, but our eyes were being blasted with the sand from the increased winds, so I guess it was the perfect time to leave.
With a population of 2600 on the island, there is a population density of .02 persons for each square mile of land, so rather sparsely populated. A British military base with 2000 troops, rotating about every 6 months, secures the island from ongoing harrassment from Argentinians. The Falkland War of 1982, the 74-day war in which hundreds died, reaffirmed British rule over the Falklands (which includes 700 smaller islands). Islanders are English speaking, and are culturally, economically and socially tied to Britain. Active de mining of the Island was only started one year ago, so there are large treks of land closed off by warning signs or fencing. On our drive back into town, we drove past old battlefields where workers from a Zimbabwe contracting firm were working on clearing some fields. The starkness, desolation and remoteness of the island make it difficult to understand why the island was ever settled.
Winds continued to increase, so our tender ride back to the ship became our third thrill ride for the day, as the small tender/ lifeboat bounced around in 8-foot seas and 35-40 mph gusts. Arriving safely, we have one day at sea before heading into Puerto Arenas.