Join Crystal Insider Joe Kita as he journeys to a special place where it’s formal night every night.
I’m bumping along in a mud-spattered Land Rover 300 Defender, an aggressive vehicle made for aggressive terrain, which pretty much sums up the Falkland Islands landscape. So far, we’ve been lucky. Some 280 miles east of the tip of South America, Crystal Serenity sailed into harbor in favorable weather conditions and now, even better, we’re off in search of penguins!
It’s hard not to fall in love with penguins. Next to the koala, they’re arguably Mother Nature’s most cuddly creation. Every night at dinner, your tablemates want to know, “Did you see any penguins?” And if so, prepare to share your photos throughout the elegant meal.
So you can imagine the level of anticipation in our seven-vehicle caravan as we leave the main road and set off cross-country to visit multiple colonies of them. Now the place we’re going (Volunteer Point) is just 10 miles away as the crow flies. I’m guessing if you took a speedboat across Berkeley Sound, you’d be there in 30 minutes. But where’s the fun in that?
Prior to our arrival, it rained for two solid days so the countryside is as soft as sponge cake. Soon we’re veering and bobbing across it in our Land Rovers, throwing peat and mud up on each other’s windshields.
“Say Tony,” I ask our driver, a third-generation Falklander with Viking blood, “didn’t the Argentinians bury a lot of land mines during the war?”
“Yes they did. There are still about 20,000 live ones around,” he says, after which he takes a long pause, fiddles with the radio, calls home, and then finally adds, “But there are none out here.”
Nonetheless, we pass the wreckage of an Argentinian helicopter and soon some of the 800,000 sheep that vastly outnumber the 3,000 inhabitants of the Islands.
“Ah, there’s the first bogging,” Tony announces, pointing to one of our vehicles which is nose down in the peat and tipped over about 20 degrees. In minutes, however, a towline is attached and after some maneuvering it’s muscled out. This will be the first of a half-dozen boggings that will besiege us on the way to the Point and stretch our journey out to over three hours. Still, the only focus of our group is our impending penguin encounter.
And when we finally arrive, they do not disappoint. There are three types at Volunteer Point. Gentoo penguins are black and white with orange beaks and feet, and there are about 3,600 breeding pairs here. Among their many entertaining behaviors is the “chick chase.” Gentoo chicks scamper after their parents, who deliberately avoid feeding them. It’s thought that this builds their strength while encouraging them to forage for themselves. (Or maybe, like humans, the parents are simply in dire need of some alone time.)
Magellanic penguins are also prevalent at the Point, with an estimated 2,500 breeding pairs. They’re entirely black and white and stand just a bit shorter than the Gentoos at two feet, three inches. They nest in burrows that can be up to six feet deep. They look like mini-miners as they peak out and then squeeze their way to the surface.
The main attraction, however, is the King penguins. These stand a stately 3 feet tall (second only to the Emperor in height) and have beautiful markings of black, silver, orange, yellow and white. The Kings, more than any other species at the Point, are dressed for a Crystal formal night. Hundreds of adult pairs stand squawking and trumpeting on a nearby hill, with chicks of varying sizes whistling for their parents. Each chick has a unique chirp, which is how moms and dads identify them. Overall, these Kings (of which there are about 1,500 breeding pairs) appear to be having a raucously good time and don’t seem to care that we’re just a few feet away. They’re watchful, of course, but generally treat us like paparazzi at their party, proudly preening and posing.
One of the highlights is watching the birds travel the Penguin Highway. This is a commonly trod beach thoroughfare by which they leave or return from feeding. (Some Kings travel hundreds of miles out to sea and are away for months at a time.) It takes the penguins awhile to get where they’re going, and they occasionally fall over, but they’re patient and will actually let you waddle beside them.
As you can imagine all this is endlessly entertaining and fascinating. The two hours we spend here seem like 20 minutes. But Tony and the other drivers are looking to get moving. We have a three-hour journey ahead of us with stops for probably another half-dozen boggings.
But who cares? We saw penguins!