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A most remarkable island

After 3 weeks of living in a tent as the great unwashed, moving on to Steeple Jason felt like the most luxurious Christmas treat. An incoming storm cut our time on Grand Jason short by a few days, so we were up early to get packed down and picked up with enough time left to get the boat back home safe before the weather turned.

Map of Steeple Jason showing location of the research station (house), landing bay (boat) and shag colony (bird). Inset shows the Falklands archipelago with Steeple highlighted by a circle.

Steeple sits next door to Grand, stretching even further west towards Argentina. Despite only a couple of kilometres of ocean between the islands, it felt like a world away. Once we’d scrambled over slippery algae-covered rocks with a mountain of kit (despite having consumed many boxes, we seemed to have even more), a 4x4 awaited us. That’s right. A 4x4. And a colony of gentoo penguins. As bizarre as it seemed, we were very grateful for the wheels as walking >2km to base back and forth with all of our kit would’ve been exhausting.

A pair of upland geese stand watch near 'the neck' where the boat dropped us off. The distant land mass is neighbouring Grand Jason

Home on Steeple was the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) research station, where scientists visit a few times a year to monitor the albatross colony, among other things. And boy, was it cosy. The house was perched atop a gully, with huge windows overlooking the sea. My list of wildlife seen from the comforts of the sofa and bed were unreal: Wilson’s storm petrels, skuas, great & sooty shearwaters, albatross, penguins, shags, geese, vultures, fur seals… The real highlights of the house though were a shower and washing machine. Warm, watery bliss. After weeks of absorbing sweat, dust, and let’s face it, probably some seabird shit, my hair had never felt so clean.

The WCS research station. A safe haven with a sea view

When we first arrived at the house all was quiet except for the wind-carried wailing of what sounded to me like a distant pool party. In a sense, it was. All along the north and NW coast were fur seals snoozing in the sun or frolicking in the shallows, seemingly having a whale of a time. The seals breed on a nearby islet and increasingly on Steeple itself, slowly encroaching further into the coast, pushing some of the seabirds aside.

A male fur seal soaking up the sun by the shag colony

I thought Grand had an impressive number of seabirds, but Steeple took it up a couple of notches with the title of world’s largest black-browed albatross colony – almost a third of the world’s population breed on this one island. More than 200,000 breeding pairs. That’s a lot of big birds. Viewed from the slopes of the island’s peaks, the colony stretched from the NW corner and followed the coast towards the SE. Accessing the birds however was more of a challenge, as a healthy tussac fringe provided a dense barrier between the birds and the interior. Of course, this formed part of my commute to the shag colony too, so it had to be crossed. Occasionally a path zigzagged its way through the stands which was easier going if you didn’t care where you ended up, except for on the other side. But unless you were lucky, dead ends were frequent. When that happened, you had two choices: scurry back and try to find another route, or go upwards. Climbing 2m tall clumps of grass was sometimes a feat in itself, especially with my little legs and arms full of kit. Hopping across the tops of them without falling in the gaps was even more so. Never in my life has the phrase “a leap of faith” felt so appropriate. But as is so often the case, the views at the end of the struggle were worth it. Albatross after albatross with a backdrop of wild South Atlantic Ocean or turn around and see the imposing, shrouded ridge of Steeple.

The view of one of Steeple’s ridges after traversing the tussac and crossing through the albatross colony

Emerging from the tussac to find albatross as far as the eye can see

The island looks like it’s been pinched in the middle (‘the neck’), and each half of the island has its own impressive spine running its length. All of the albatross and rockhoppers line the southwestern side of the ridges, whilst the northeast is scattered with gentoo colonies, giant petrels, magellanic penguins, fur seals and Falkland skuas. The island is also known for its well studied population of Johnny rooks, so it was the perfect place to spend some downtime reading about the birds in Johnathan Meiburg’s “A Most Remarkable Creature”.

A pair of Johnny rooks (striated caracaras) fooling around on one of Steeple’s slopes

I’m still not sure if it’s because our base was now facing the unsheltered north (as opposed to SE on Grand) or if the weather was just worse, but it was a very, very windy couple of weeks. The house shook on its supports as the wind battered the gable ends, and water was whipped off the ocean surface and thrown over the cliffs towards my bedroom window. It was a good excuse to curl up inside, catch up on data entry and make the most of a well equipped kitchen. I was amazed at how the wildlife seemed unfazed – we couldn’t manage to walk in a straight line, yet the birds continued to sit tight on their nests while their partners somehow penetrated the waves, returning unharmed and full of food for hungry chicks. I had to remind myself that this was their every day, and it would be even worse in the winter. But these creatures are adapted to these conditions. It’s where they thrive. I on the other hand, needed a gallon of suncream to avoid looking like a lobster, and a diet heavily laced with sugar to power through the near-gale, tussac-clambering commute. But despite being outside of my natural range, it was empowering to realise what conditions I could still excel in. Working in Scotland after this will be a breeze.

Wild weather can keep scientists stuck indoors but it doesn’t faze the shags (top right)

1 Comment

Jun 12, 2023

Fantastic account Danni. I was never lucky enough to get out to the Jasons, but the colonies on the islands were amazing to see from above. Now I know what I missed below, and still very jealous!

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