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Land Ho: The Falklands

Part 3 (November 25-26, 2007)

By Kate Woodward



Humpback whales, next to a huge iceberg, courtesy of Richard Foinette.



Dear All,

When I rushed off yesterday, it was to attend an outstanding lecture by our female cetologist, who then joined us at our table for lunch, along with Pat Abbott, the geologist who at 3 this afternoon will "build Antarctica from the bottom up" for us, with his Enrichment Lecture on plate tectonics in Antarctica.  


Stephanie had so much that was fascinating to say about whales that I should have been taking notes (whales?  Me, fascinated?).  Just a few items that intrigued me especially: scientists are now getting whales to film each other at great depths by attaching (with suction cups) what they call "critter cams" to the backs of selected animals, giving wonderful insights into whale relationships as well as providing information about their diving behavior and how they live in their watery environment.  They have also made great inroads in terms of the life of whales through poop collection, which is not high on the list of favorite things to do (we didn't ask for details about how this takes place), but which is very important.

Then some horrifying information: just as we humans are top of our "food chain", so are whales the top of theirs, which means that they are eating things that have eaten other things, etc.--the fact being that the toxins from the land are being transferred one way or another to the sea.  Not only were killer whales off Norway found to have hugely high levels of toxins in their systems, but beluga whales, found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, are so poisoned that if one dies and is washed up on the shore, scientists cannot actually touch the whales to study them--it requires the folk in white bubble suits to deal with the remains as they are so toxic. Dreadful for the poor creatures as well as worrying for us.

There is some good news, which is that a few severely diminished whale species are bulking up in terms of numbers, in spite of having reached dangerously low levels in the mid- to late-20th century because of whaling.  One of the cruise guests asked an interesting question at the end of the lecture, which clearly flummoxed Stephanie, our speaker.  His question: "Well, how many whales do we need?"  She didn't say, "Well, how many humans do we need?" but after chatting with her at lunch, I could tell that had been on the tip of her tongue.  These scientists are almost all teachers as well as researchers, and are very gentle with their instruction.  

Interestingly, the two women, Stephanie, the cetologist, and Patricia, the ornithologist, are both married to research scientists, which is fortunate, since many of these naturalists spend 6 months of the year apart because of their expeditions. Stephanie's husband is a scientist at one of the Antarctic bases, so she sees even less of him, although they plan to be together at Christmas. She's probably in her mid-30s, and I suspect that this sort of career/life does not lend itself to having children; their area of expertise is truly a passion for them. We are privileged to have this kind of casual as well as "programmed" contact with them.

When I found we had 3 of our scientists at our table at lunch, I couldn't resist asking whether they had worked on other Antarctic cruises and whether they felt they were all very similar. There was a short silence, then Patricia said there were enormous differences, and Pat, who teaches at the University of San Diego and publishes books when he's not visiting Antarctica, said that he would just give us one fact.  The National Geographic, which also runs Antarctic cruises, conducted a survey--and he said he really respected them for being honest, as they did not end up with the highest rating--this cruise did. For one thing, most cruises have 3 to 5 experts/scientists along--and we have 14, which is extraordinary.  

I had actually expected that we'd have "free" days when at sea, for relaxed reading (and was delighted to hear that there was such a big collection aboard, so I wouldn't have to carry so many books)--and have found there are so many things on offer to do that it's a bit challenging to find a 60- to 90-minute period in which to send one of these journal entries.  We have not had occasion to watch any of the TV movies (Antarctic-related documentaries as well as regular films) which are broadcast on in-ship TV--and we haven't even dreamed of borrowing any of the DVDs they have available at the main desk to watch in our cabin--no time!

On now to yesterday afternoon when we did, at last, manage to get into the harbor of Port Stanley--a very narrow entrance to it, I must say.  It was not until 3:15 that we were called to have our cards swiped before getting into a shuttle bus that took us the 2 miles to Stanley.  I'm not sure whether I'll have time to include all we learned about this small, almost pioneer town before the lecture--will stop and send at 2:55, and if need be, will continue tomorrow.



Our first stop, after we had made the rather bleak journey to Stanley and its Visitor Center, where I shot a photo of Roger mailing your postcards in a typical red, ERII, in-wall post box (stamps paid for in pounds sterling), was along the harbor, standing on incredibly springy grass on what they call their "green."  I don't know how they are able to grow such luxuriant grass on what looks like pretty desolate land&emdash;no indigenous trees, although some have been imported and have "lasted" if not "thrived" (there is a very carefully manicured evergreen hedge around the Governor's house, which is right on the main road, so if care is taken, some things seem to do all right). There are also a few trees that also look like evergreens, which have a pronounced "lean" because of the amount of wind that batters these islands.  What grows in rampant abundance is a yellow-flowering shrub that lights up what might otherwise be an austere landscape&emdash;broom?  We were fortunate to be here at the right time to enjoy it.


There is still a lot of peat in the Falklands, and it seems that about a quarter of the island's 3000 inhabitants still heat their houses with peat, which gives off a steady if not blistering heat.  A fellow cruiser happened upon peat being "harvested"--a shoulder-high bank being sliced into blocks which were loaded into a cart for delivery. Since the number of folk using other (imported) fuels has grown, there is enough peat left that apparently islanders have been promised a supply of peat in perpetuity, being offered another plot should the one they are currently working become exhausted. We did not go into any of the pubs in town, but again, this couple did so and said there was a sweetish smell of burning that they thought was peat.


As we walked along the green, we came across a sizable wreck lying about 10 yards away from theshore--looking not only antique but as though it had half "melted away", either from weather or from bits being pirated for other use. We sat on a very new-looking bench carved with "From the sea, freedom" (a gift a few weeks ago from families of veterans of the Falklands War in 1982), as we gazed upon the wrecked hulk and learned from our audio tapes that the harbor used to be filled with dozens of these.  In fact, the Falklands have hundreds of wrecks around them, many of them ships that got into trouble while trying to round Cape Horn, that turned back, and if they did not make it to safe harbor at Stanley, foundered off the islands.  Of those that made it to Port Stanley, some were in such bad shape that they were left to crumble away in the harbor itself.

There were so many of these that residents of Stanley decided to make use of them, cutting holes inthe sides closer to shore and putting out ramps to the wrecks, using them as a sort of detached, floating, storage shed.  But eventually the harbor got so cluttered that the wrecks were all cleared except this one example of what used to be.


We continued to the Falklands Police Station which had some sort of weapon displayed proudly in its front garden, perhaps something left behind after the Falklands war, I first thought&emdash;or even, perhaps, a freshly painted harpoon from a whaler.  (Later: in trying to identify this object on the Internet once we got home, I came across an appalling description of what harpoons do to whales which, once hit, drag the whaling boat during what can be up to 90 minutes of torture before they die.  The article is from The Herald, by Rebecca McQuillan, in July 2004:

"The methods have hardly evolved since Dr. Harry D. Lillie worked as a ship's doctor on a whaling expedition in the Antarctic in 1946: 'If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck into its stomach and being made to pull a butcher's truck through the streets of London while it pours blood in the gutter, we shall have an idea of the present method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.'")

In spite of the worldwide ban on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission 22 years ago, Japan, Norway, and Iceland continue to hunt them.


A bit further on, we came across Stanley's red brick cathedral, built in 1890.  We heard that almost no houses are made of brick or stone because there was not the right type of clay on the island to make bricks that would last--and that local stone did not "cut" well, which is why most houses are made of wood and corrugated tin panels (the roofs are all painted vivid colors, with very little attempt at harmonious combinations, while most of the walls are painted white, although there are exceptions to that, too; you'll eventually see a picture of Roger in front of a dazzling yellow house that is almost fluorescent). I don't know where the bricks for the cathedral came from, but perhaps some are of the "island-made" variety, because inside the porch of the church, the bricks forming a slanting wall under a window are literally turning to red dust, dust which is about an eighth of an inch thick, which leaves the mortar proud of it.  Not sure whether that means the rest of the church has had replacement/restoration work with "harder" bricks... but I've never seen anything like this literal crumbling before.

Inside the cathedral, which is very small, are stained glass windows--some very beautiful--which tell the tales of members of the community, from a visiting nurse on her bicycle, beneath Jesus enthroned, to one of Jesus walking on water, in memory of a local man who was lost at sea.  The daughter of the visiting nurse not only funded the window in her mother's honor, but also needle-pointed a tapestry kneeler showing her mother visiting those in need of medical attention around the island on her two-wheeler. The other kneelers have been made by local women and almost all depict Falklands scenes. One of them duplicated the crest which we ran across on all the beautifully painted litter bins along the way--a sheep on a small patch of green above a 3-masted ship which "floats" over the saying: "Desire the Right".

Next to the church is a huge criss-cross arch that is made from the jawbones of two blue whales, to commemorate the administration of the islands by Britain for a complete century.  Erected in 1933, their original ivory color has aged to something more caramel or tan. They look at least as permanent as the church, although the blue whales as a species were hunted almost to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century.  Original estimates of 239,000 of them in Antarctic waters dropped to almost none, although there are apparently 2000 of them there now. This is still a huge decline for what has been considered the largest mammal on earth.


A little further down the road, we came to a group of new, connected houses, each with a roof painted a different color--the local hospital, which has 28 beds.  There is a resident surgeon and what I at first thought the tape said was an "atheist"--together they take care of anything that can't wait until the once-weekly flight from the Falklands to Chile.  Doctors come out from Britain for stints of several years, as do teachers who work in the enormous school (building, that is) with 200 kids.  All schooling is free to the residents, not only through the 11th (or penultimate) grade, but for the final year, for which they go to school abroad, as well as for university, for which they also must go overseas.


Stanley's 28-bed hospital


At first I wondered whether (we) British tax-payers were funding this wonderful system of education, but it turns out that the island's main income (especially now that sheep farming is in a state of collapse) comes from the sale of fishing licenses, to the tune of 45 million pounds a year. This has enabled enormous public works to be funded, although for at least one year recently, the squid, which are the most desired catch, have for some reason not "come down" from the seas off the east coast of South America, so the license fees have had to be refunded, which was pretty disastrous.


Stanley's school, through 11th or penultimate grade


One of the guests who went to the sheep farm said that yesterday was his second visit to the Falklands, as he'd done a cruise around the whole South American continent about 9 years ago, at which time Stanley was incredibly run down and in a state of serious decline.  He was amazed at the changes.

During their visit to the sheep farm, they found that their very welcoming hosts, who not only showed them around but offered them a sort of "tea" were living a very Spartan life.  They were sixth generation Falklanders who very much wanted to continue the "old life", but were finding it very difficult as sheep now have become too expensive to raise (for example, in New Zealand, 8 sheep can be raised on one acre&emdash;whereas on the harsh land of the Falklands, it requires 8 acres to raise one, I believe), and they are even becoming too expensive to slaughter.  

A suggestion was made was that since they were becoming too expensive to save and too expensive to sell, they could be sent out onto the cordoned off portions of the island which continue to be off limits because of the large numbers of landmines left by the Argentinians during their occupation in the 80's. Pretty brutal, but it's unlikely that the mines will otherwise be located and removed or detonated.  Fortunately for the penguins, which roam free, they are light enough that they can walk right over the tiny, pinkie-nail-sized plastic triggers without setting them off.


Late afternoon with, on the right, the tiny home of the "Penguin News", the islands' weekly paper.


Our lecturer has just walked past me, wearing what, in this red-coated society, is a startlingly white jacket--maybe something he's saved for Antarctica!  So had better go--having done nowhere near what I planned.  


Hugs from here--where the dazzling sky of this morning, which made the sea appear a blue so deep it was nearly purple (a great backdrop for the Wandering Albatross--which we were told had an 11-foot span from wing tip to wing tip, which we finally saw this morning&emdash;see below) has become battleship grey under covered skies.  It now looks like what it is--very, very cold!




From Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego (Part 1)

Our First Day at Sea, then Wind! (Part 2)



© Kate Woodward 2008

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 130, April 2008