Postcard from the Falklands: an audience with the albatross

When the western Falkland Islands emerged through the haar, they did so like a rumour — gradually and doubtfully, then more convincingly. Soon, they were undeniable. We had been sailing for two and a half days across a raw and landless South Atlantic before they appeared, strangely Hebridean on the hazy horizon.

Our ship, the Greg Mortimer, was returning to South America after almost three weeks at sea in Antarctica and South Georgia, a route the owners, Aurora Expeditions, were attempting for the first time in the pandemic-blighted 2021-22 cruise season.

In an ordinary year, we’d have sailed a straight course to Stanley, the corrugated-iron-roofed capital of the Falklands, but to do so in 2022 would have required additional Covid-19 tests and possible quarantines, both on the islands and in our home port in Chile. Instead, we sailed to the west of the archipelago, to sites less visited by ships, where just a few isolated custodians manage the land.

Though almost empty of people, these same islands are incredibly popular places for seabirds, especially the black-browed albatross, a million of which are thought to nest across the Falklands. Were it not for the giant birds, I would have sworn I was in northern Scotland: on Saunders Island, a yawning bay was host to an unkempt mile-long beach, which was in turn framed by a smooth, ruddy hill, its summit vanishing into a low layer of cloud. A dreich rain fell — Scottish weather to match the scenery — but even with that, the albatrosses appeared noble and elegant.

Black-browed albatrosses have dark feathering around their eyes, which seems so perfectly cultivated it would be the envy of any awards ceremony actress. Their wings stretch 8ft; their nests are high and tubular, as though constructed on a potter’s wheel, a design so sound that birds return to the same one year after year.

It was April and the chicks had already grown, distinguishable from their parents only by their markings. Ahead of what will be years of life at sea, they frequently rose and stretched. To see an albatross stand, unfurl, then beat its colossal wings felt like a rare moment of urgency in a world of tranquillity.

Pushed for time, we left Saunders Island before most passengers were ready and headed to West Point Island, home of an even larger colony. En route, Commerson’s dolphins — one of the world’s smallest cetaceans — accompanied us, their white flanks flashing as they leapt from the water.

When they could get our attention, the Greg Mortimer crew told us about studies of the albatross’s heart rate. Like people, it is most stressed when feeding children; like people, it is much more relaxed when sleeping. However, the time when an albatross achieves its slowest heart rate is when it takes to the air — nothing makes it more relaxed than its eternal glide.

Our own heart rates soon increased as we walked over the hills of West Point Island in search of more birds. After half an hour, we awkwardly stumbled through a maze of tussock grass before the birds appeared through the greenery, serene in the face of our clumsiness.

Here the albatrosses were interspersed with ordinarily boisterous southern rockhopper penguins. In the austral autumn, these dumpy birds had fallen into a quiet meditation while they underwent catastrophic moults. When the wind blew up off the cold ocean and across the colony, juvenile albatrosses would fan their experimental wings, while tornadoes of shed penguin feathers swirled around like snow.

The 40th anniversary of the start of the Falklands war coincided with our arrival at the islands, though for locals it was not something to celebrate — June 14, Liberation Day, would be the time for acknowledgment and reflection. There were other concerns instead, in particular about reopening the islands to visitors after two years. Having had fewer than 150 cases and no deaths, one islander said they feared reopening just before winter would mean that “Covid will rip through these islands”.

Others, meanwhile, were perturbed by plans for an industrial salmon farm in the Falklands’ pristine waters. Inevitably, a rearrangement of the ecosystem here would soon affect the albatrosses too, birds as particular as they are spectacular. As we upped anchor to leave, I hoped more than anything that these regal creatures wouldn’t be harmed by this potential encroachment.

I’m fortunate that my career has taken me to many peaceful places — Zen gardens in Japan, muted fjords in Scandinavia, the vast silence of Oman’s Empty Quarter — but nowhere has felt quite so actively relaxing, so purely tranquil as being in the company of the albatross. A century ago, the writer and ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy also felt something of this transcendence. “I now belong to a higher cult of morals,” he wrote in Logbook for Grace, “for I have seen the albatross.”

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