23 February 2012

A kinder, gentler view of the Falklands

By UK guest blogger Dr Claire Goodwin. Claire is a marine biologist at National Museums Northern Ireland. Her work involves SCUBA diving survey projects and the study of marine invertebrates – she has a particular interest in sponges. She has recently been on diving expeditions with the Falkland Islands-based Shallow Marine Surveys Group, helping them document the sponges of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia - research highlights are here.

Black-browed Albatrosses on what Darwin called 'miserable islands'. Photo Claire Goodwin 

Here’s hoping Prince William enjoys the Falkland Islands more than Charles Darwin did. In March 1834, HMS Beagle arrived in ‘these miserable islands’ with a population ‘of which rather more than half were runaway rebels and murderers’. Darwin saw an ‘undulating land with a desolate and wretched aspect…everywhere covered by a peaty soil and wiry grass, of one monotonous brown colour’ which ‘can boast of few plants deserving even the title of bushes’.

Exploring the islands on horseback with Gauchos, he found ‘nothing could be less interesting than our day’s ride’, although maybe his mood was not improved by the hail and rain they tramped through and lack of sleep as ‘the ground on which we slept was on each occasion nearly in the state of a bog, and there was not a dry spot to sit down on after our day’s ride.’ He didn’t think much of the overall climate either - comparing it to the mountains of North Wales, only with more wind and rain.

Having visited the Falklands for research over the last few years, I can agree with Darwin about the windy weather, but found its wildlife much more interesting and its human inhabitants much more hospitable. However, I did have the advantage of escaping underwater from any inclement conditions as I was participating in diving surveys with the Shallow Marine Surveys Group.

Exploring the shallows. Photo Claire Goodwin

The Falkland Islands are situated in the South Atlantic roughly 400 miles from the coast of Argentina and 850 miles north of the Antarctic Circle. The archipelago includes two main islands, East and West Falkland, and 778 smaller ones. It offers a wide variety of dive sites, but the shallow marine zone remains largely unsurveyed. Much of the coastline around the islands is rocky, and beneath the waves, swoops into a series of dramatic pinnacles, gullies and ledges.

What the Falkland archipelago lacks in terrestrial trees it makes up for underwater. The giant kelp, Macrocystis pyrifera, forms long-leaved stands which reach several meters in length, trailing on the surface and forming a trap for unwary diver legs and boat props. Tree kelp (Lessonia trabeculata) is found in deeper water and, as the name suggests, its holdfasts are thick and tree-like: ideal for grabbing onto in a swell but tricky to manoeuvre around when surveying. Underneath the kelp, the bedrock is covered with colourful splodges of encrusting invertebrates.

SMSG are conducting SCUBA surveys trying to document the shallow underwater species and habitats of the island, many of which may be new to science – on a survey of the Jason Islands in 2008 we found 12 new species of sponge, and we’re in the process of describing several new species from a second expedition. Being based on the expedition yacht Golden Fleece allows the group to reach far-flung corners of the islands such as BeauchĂȘne Island – some 40 miles to the south of the main group.

SMSG vessel Golden Fleece. Photo Claire Goodwin

The productive shallow water environments are one reason that the Falkland Islands are globally important for bird life. The penguins, which Darwin observed crawling through the tussock grass and diving ‘like a fish leaping for sport’, comprise five different species including 30% of the world’s population of Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua). Two-thirds of the world’s populations of black-browed albatrosses are also found here, and we often encountered vast colonies with birds sitting on sandcastle-like mud nests or wheeling overhead when we went ashore from the survey vessel.

Less friendly were the Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis) or Johnny Rooks as they are locally known, which frequently dive-bombed us. As Darwin noted these ‘extraordinarily tame and fearless’ birds ‘are very mischievous and inquisitive; they will pick up almost anything from the ground’. We had to be on guard of our cameras when they were around, and Darwin’s party experienced several losses including ‘a large black glazed hat…carried nearly a mile’ and ‘a small Kater’s compass in a red morocco leather case which was never recovered’. Despite being noted by Darwin as ‘exceedingly common’, the species is now listed as ‘near threatened’ by BirdLife International. Its decline is partly because its habit of attacking lambs and weakened sheep has historically brought it into conflict with sheep farmers.

Rooks contemplating petty thievery - or lunch. Photo Claire Goodwin

From Johnny Rooks to the endemic Hairy Daisy, both above and below water the Falklands have many species and habitats of importance.  Much research has been undertaken since Darwin’s day – for example the grassland he dismissed as ‘monotonous’ has been found to harbor 175 species of plant, including 14 endemic species. The work of the Shallow Marine Surveys Group and Falkland Conservation continues to document and study the fascinating wildlife of these Islands. We hope they’re joined in the near future by researchers and students traveling with the new Beagle – and traveling with ample woolies and waterproofs! 


Karen James said...

A wonderful post. Thanks so much for contributing to the blog, Claire.

brian said...

Last year I read for the first time the Darwin's description about the Falkland Islands. I thought it was a place that is not for me. But after reading you article I would visit them! I like very much doing snorkeling and scuba diving and the picture you've put in the article are beautiful! I hope that in August I do not have to work.

Glazier W8