Friday, 9 December 2016

The Birds! And Rockhopper Penguins!

As any non-medic who has been unfortunate enough to attend a medic party will testify, doctors love to talk shop. It’s just one of our favourite things. We have a wealth of smutty jokes, revolting anecdotes and our war stories turn most people pale and queasy. We like to pass it off as laughter in the trenches and the only way to get through the emotional burden of it all (and sometimes this is definitely true!) BUT my suspicion is that most of us are just plain weird. Hanging out with sailors has therefore been a pretty good surrogate. Most of them don’t flinch over my potty mouth or look surprised when I snigger at the dirty jokes...and then contribute my own. My only concern is that I may actually be turning into a man. And when I’m feeling really paranoid, that it wasn’t that big a step anyway!

But this was never going to be enough. It’s like a one-hundred cigarette- a-day man going onto nicotine patches- sooner or later they long for the real thing. And today I got it! I wrangled my way onto a neighbouring ship (by the clever manoeuvre of asking for a tour) and was taken to meet the doctor. It was infinitely reassuring. The same problems, the same hiccups. The same horror of dental work (how do dentists find so much space in what is, after all, quite a small area?) and most enjoyably he also had a copy of the Ship Captain’s Medical Guide. Don’t leave home without it! So I’m feeling curiously upbeat. Underlying all of this is the feeling that I am still actually just five years old and I’m not quite certain why the grownups have let me go to sea. So it was deeply soothing to meet someone else doing my job and to hear that they’ve had similar experiences and struggles.

This feeling of eternally being a child is actually fairly ironic given that I celebrated my 32nd birthday as we reached Stanley. How did I get this old? I had a wonderful birthday however. A vast number of parcels were waiting for me as we docked; my mother and sister sent me lots of dark chocolate and a pair of earrings (thank you Pookie!) and my Dad sent me books and DVDs. I have to report that the cherry flavoured Lindt dark chocolate was much appreciated by the cognoscenti at morning smoko (that’s coffee break- no actual smoking) but I’m being very selfish and keeping the rest to myself. Every so often I take my chocolate out of the fridge and stroke it, murmuring “My precious” to myself. I feel that this is totally legitimate behaviour.

 I was thoroughly spoilt, opening all the presents and cards that I was sent South with. Hand creams and soaps, books and notebooks. My favourite thing without a doubt is a selection of loose tea with a tea strainer- type thing which lends a certain elegance to my tea breaks. This is in no way detracted from by the fact that I drink my tea from a mug with penguins on it.

Once ashore in the Falklands, my time is pretty much my own. If the crew or scientists need medical assistance there is a hospital in Stanley, so I’m encouraged to escape the ship. I therefore leapt at the opportunity to visit a colony of Rockhopper penguins at Murrell Farm. We were driven by Landover along the bumpy gravel roads to Murrell Farm itself and then off-roaded for an hour before reaching Kidney Cove. I could smell the Rockhoppers before I jumped out of the Landrover, and the screeching din assaulted the ears from yards away!
Rockhopper enjoying the sunshine

Kidney Cove
 The waters of kidney cove are of a bright aquamarine shading to dark blue and full of kelp. The mouth of the cove is very narrow which helps to keep the waters of the cove relatively placid even when the fury of the Southern Atlantic is hammering the coastline. No doubt this is why the Rockhoppers have made their colony here and it’s easy to see how they’ve earned their name. These penguins look like a strange cross between crazed chickens with their red eyes and their crests and Igors as they hunch over, the better to spring from rock to rock on their way up from the waterline.

The crouch...

The leap...

Phew...the safe landing

The Rockhoppers are full of a pugnacious character that becomes apparent whilst watching squabbles breaking out over bitterly contested pebbles or territory. The anxiety of the birds was well merited though. Whilst we were there, a skua was actively hunting and twice stole chicks from the nests.

Fighting off the Skua

Circling for another attempt...

My other birthday treat to myself was a round robin ticket on a flight around the islands. The Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) is an airline that provides on-demand flights out to remote communities. The planes arrive either bearing supplies or providing transport into Stanley or other communities. Many of these remote farmsteads may consist of two or three families living in comparative isolation and these flights are a vital link to the outside world. It’s possible to book a ticket and simply enjoy views afforded by the trip.

The flight that I went on started in Stanley, headed north to Port San Carlos and then hopped across to Pebble Island before heading south through the skies to Sea Lion Island and finally Stanley again. The plane was a Britten-Norman Islander with two propellers and capable of seating 8 people including the pilot and co-pilot.
My ride

I didn't touch anything!
I’ve never flown in a plane that small and I was allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat! We took off and landed on remote airfields that consisted of a strip of mown grass and a wind sock and I thought to myself that I had never done anything half as cool before! The views were astonishing. The land was a creamy mint colour with grey rocky spines projecting from the earth. The sea was a bright cobalt blue and we were lucky enough to see sea lions and whales from above.
I'm not sure this needs words

The airstrip at Pebble Island

The world from above

I was informed that the Giant Petrels have started to become pests. Their numbers have increased in the Falklands which has meant that rather than scavenging as they normally do, they’ve been forced to start hunting. They force penguins under the water until they drown and they’ve also been known to attack and kill ewes in the middle of lambing. As our plane gained height over Sea Lion Island we banked to take a closer look at a killer whale carcass being stripped by a team of busy birds. The pilot remarked nonchalantly that he’s known a whole fin whale carcass to be stripped by them in less than three weeks. And then we were speeding away, back towards Stanley and the friendly, familiar shape of the James Clark Ross at harbour.
JCR from above


  1. It was awesome! I had such a good week! How are the night shifts coming along? Hx

  2. Have just stumbled in your blog. Fab pictures looks awesome. Hope you don't have too much actual Medicine

  3. Glad you're enjoying it! Yes, the medicine can only get in the way of honing my photography. Joking, honestly, joking. Just interested- how did you find the blog? Hx