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An island of treasures

A short hop away from Saunders is the Falklands’ third largest island, Pebble Island. My fourth and final site for the season. A slight misunderstanding somewhere down the line meant that they weren’t actually expecting me as I arrived, but after a couple of hours of gathering supplies, bed-building and turning things on, the empty workers' cottage was transformed into a warm research station.

Of course, the wild weather followed me, and the forecast was abysmal for much of the first week, a crucial time in my two-week visit for getting tags deployed. To make matters more complicated, Augustin, a member of Amandine’s team who was going to help me with deployments, was stuck on another island until the weather improved. A stressful start for my tired brain.

Not much to do except watch the wildlife doing it's thing whilst waiting for the winds to die down

Eventually, the weather improved sufficiently and in just enough time to get tags out for a worthwhile duration. Kate, the landowners’ 16-year-old saved the day by offering to be my extra pair of hands. The final hurdle then, was getting to the colonies. On Pebble, the shags are only found on the Tamar Peninsula out to the east, about an hour’s off-road drive from the settlement. I hate driving at the best of times, so this had been plaguing my mind since I was first told on Bleaker that I'd have to drive to the colonies. After a quick crash course on how to handle the old school Land Rover that bore a broken hand brake, questionable brakes and only one door that could safely be opened from inside and out, I was on my way. The landowner, Alex, offered to show me the way, so I followed him and Kate out of the settlement and down towards the dunes. Ordinarily, we’d ride over the dunes and beside the sea, but a high tide meant the beach was non-existent. The detour took us on a heart rate-rising route along, and through, wind-whipped ponds, brain-shaking moorland and a slalom of penguin burrows. I was glad to have the privacy of my own car within which I could swear continuously for what felt like hours.

My initiation into off-road driving

Thankfully I never had to take the high tide route again. Instead, I learnt which tracks to follow, reserved my use of profanities only for when listing sideways over the dunes, and managed to knock half an hour off my initial commuting time. It turns out that most off-road driving is just slowly bumbling along bumpy tracks, and I can happily do slow.

A cluster of shag colonies made the bumpy drive worthwhile

The shags on Pebble made claim to a few project records: heaviest bird caught (a chunky 3kg compared to <2.5kg), furthest distance travelled, and first bird to fully remove and lose it’s GPS tag. She removed the tag and tape attaching it so thoroughly and cleanly that it caused me a fair amount of confusion as I sat watching the bird, questioning whether I’d even tagged her in the first place. But the most exciting milestone was deploying tags on the 100th bird for the project. By wearing tags for a short while, these birds have collected heaps of exciting new data that’ll help us to better understand the feeding behaviour of this understudied seabird.

One of the 100 shags equipped with GPS tags as part of this project

When Augustin finally arrived, we joined a tourist trip out to the west of the island. A recce really, so Augustin could scout out suitable colonies for his research and learn which 4x4 tracks to follow. The trip took us past relics from the ’82 war and out towards the north coast where we made a few stops to admire penguins, petrels, and dolphins in the surf. Even where there are no colonies you can’t escape from birds, as we discovered whilst exploring an atmospheric cove containing the Penguin Cave.

The Penguin Cave. Can you spot it?

Young gentoos trying to cool down in the stifling sun

The island is named after the special pebbles which can be found along some of its beaches. Resembling agates, the semi-precious stones formed on deep sea hydrothermal vents are supposedly quite rare in some spots but I was eager to try and find some whilst visiting. On a sunny day off, I strolled along the 4-mile beach and beyond to a small cove on the north coast, past waterfowl-filled ponds and rocky bays edged with sun-bleached whale bones. Pilot whales are known for their curious behaviour of mass strandings, and sadly, Pebble has seen its fair share of stranded whales. On reaching the cove, my pace slowed rapidly as I scoured the stony banks, scanning each and every rock for something special. Little bursts of indigo caught my eye and before I knew it, I had pockets full of gems. After admiring the rich colour and translucent depth of each stone, I left my findings for the next intrepid beachcomber to stumble upon.

Devastatingly, pilot whales often strand in huge family pods

Pilot whale bones decorate the coastline

Pebble Islands' namesake pebbles

Another of Pebble’s geological treasures is found on the south, where I spent my final day on the island. At the bottom of a valley, low tide exposes huge rocky slabs covered in luminous green algae. Low cliffs meet the slabs, and it was at the bottom of these I inched along, craning my neck upwards to look for familiar patterns in the sandstone. It didn’t take long for me find what I was searching for. Perfect imprints of fan-shaped shells decorated the loose rocks, providing a glimpse into the world 400-million years ago. Once I’d found my fill of fossils, I ambled home along the coast, past territorial steamer ducks and yet more whale bones, all the while reflecting on another field season well done.

400-million-year-old fossil shells found in the sandstone cliffs

A handsome steamer duck guarding his territory

1 Comment

Paddy O'Connor
Paddy O'Connor
Mar 25

As always, an intriguing read and wonderful photography.

Paddy O'Connor

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