Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Island Hopping in the South Atlantic

In the mid-1980s, when I spent a year in the Falkland Islands, there were almost no tourists and very few roads of any sort. Even on the two big islands, East and West Falkland, the main means of transportation was the ten-seater Norman-Britten Islander, pictured here landing on a dirt airstrip at Saunders Island. Today, though both main islands have pretty good roads, the Islander remains essential for reaching outlying islands that contain some of the South Atlantic's best wildlife sites.

Over the past several years, the Islands have become popular for their concentrations of penguins, albatrosses, cormorants, elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals, and other fauna. Most visitors arrive by cruise ships - when I was in Stanley last December 7, several ships with more than 4,000 passengers (more than double Stanley's population) were anchored in the outer harbor of Port William (they're too big to enter Stanley's sheltered inner harbor). Many of the visitors, though not all, came ashore to be shuttled to wildlife sites such as Bluff Cove, whose large gentoo penguin colony is easy to reach on a day trip before returning to the ship.

Not to disparage Bluff Cove, but the handful of visitors who fly in for a week or two from the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, Chile, see the islands more throughly and intimately. They have the option of overnighting at wildlife lodges at fauna-rich sites such as Sea Lion Island and Carcass Island, among others, that are accessible primarily by Islander aircraft (smaller cruise ships do visit Carcass, but only briefly). Until recently, though, tourist traffic has not been a high priority for the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS), which exists primarily for the benefit of local residents.

This may soon change. Sean Minto, the new FIGAS general manager, wants to double the number of tourist flights to increase revenues (tourists are not eligible for the subsidized fares that local taxpayers have). If that's the case, more visitors may be enjoying the South Atlantic wildlife, as well as aerial views of the Islands' spectacular shoreline from the Islander. For the time being, though, their numbers will continue to be limited by Argentina's refusal to allow more than a single weekly commercial flight from Punta Arenas, even though LAN Airlines (which needs permission to cross Argentine airspace) would like to increase frequencies. The only other option is an expensive Royal Air Force charter from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, via Ascension Island.

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