Monday, November 25, 2013

Tiptoe Through the Tussac? Sidestepping Sea Lions at Cape Dolphin

Saturday afternoon, after a delayed arrival at the Falklands, I enjoyed a home-cooked dinner of Patagonian toothfish (“Chilean sea bass”) before a relatively early to bed – in a single night, I managed to pay the enormous sleep debt that had accumulated due to five hours of jet lag (from California) and three days of appointments (in Santiago). Sunday morning I felt refreshed and, when my host Ray Poole asked if I might be up for an excursion, I impulsively suggested Cape Dolphin, East Falkland’s northwestern peninsula that I never seen in my previous stays (see map above).
Ray and his wife Nancy accepted my suggestion enthusiastically, and packed a picnic lunch on a sunny morning that – unusually for the Falklands – was utterly windless. We drove their Land Rover out the Mount Pleasant Airport road for a few miles before turning onto the San Carlos Road. It took two hours to cover the 60 miles to Cape Dolphin Farm, but another hour to manage the ten miles to the tip of the peninsula, covered by dense tussac grass (Paridiochloa flabellata). En route, we stopped to observe a colony of perhaps 400 Gentoo penguins, in the early stages of their nesting season.
At one point, though, the tussac grew too dense for the Rover to advance any farther, and we parked to enjoy sandwiches before Ray and I continued toward the tip of the peninsula. Nancy chose to stay back for concern about the southern sea lions (Otaria flavescens) that inhabit the tussac. As the photograph below shows, the males are imposing beasts, weighing up 750 pounds (350 kg), and can be aggressive. Fortunately, they’re not quite so quick on the ground as their African namesakes, even though their manes evoke some resemblance.
Ray scouted the route ahead, occasionally climbing atop a dead tussac mound, but on one occasion he inadvertently startled a large male and briefly lost his shoes before the beast retreated. I followed and, for my part, I’m cautious walking through tussac bogs; in the end, we saw dozens of lions before returning safely to the vehicle. Most of the sleeping lions didn’t even see us but, when they did, they scampered away toward towards the beach below.

I don’t know of any actual attacks on hikers here, but it’s an exhilarating experience to walk among them. It made for an auspicious start to what will be an unfortunately short week in the Islands, before I return to Chile on Saturday.

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