Penguins drive tourism in the Falklands

King penguins, one of five penguin species in the Falklands, are a major draw for tourists.
King penguins, one of five penguin species in the Falklands, are a major draw for tourists. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

STANLEY (Falkland Islands) • Waddling up the beach in single file, their heads held high with an almost self-important demeanour, king penguins are a major draw in the Falkland Islands' tourism industry.

Their fluffy brown chicks are nearly fearless of humans, meaning tourists at Volunteer Point, a peninsula on East Falkland Island, might get almost close enough to touch one.

"We're the furthest location north in the world that you can see king penguins," said Mr Tony Heathman, a former sheep farmer who has spent the last 16 years taking tour groups to Volunteer Point, where a thousand pairs of the islands' signature species go to breed.

"We get lots and lots of people who... love to come here and get as close to the king penguins as they possibly can," the 70-year-old said.

Kings are just one of five penguin species in the Falklands, alongside the wacky-looking rockhoppers - which have yellow tassels sprouting from the side of their heads - as well as gentoos, macaronis and the burrowing magellanics.

The Falklands have incredibly rich biodiversity, including more than 25 species of whales and dolphins, but it is the guaranteed ability to get up close with penguins that makes the islands a particularly enticing destination.

Tourism is a growing industry in the Falklands, despite their remote location in the South Atlantic some 480km off Argentina and occasional political and economic hostility from Buenos Aires.

Last year, there was a 6.3 per cent increase in tourist arrivals and a 29.4 per cent surge in tourist expenditure to almost £8.8 million (S$15.4 million).

"One of the key attractions for us was the king penguins at Volunteer Point, so we saw plenty of those," said Ms Flavia Tang, 29, from London, who came for a week with her partner.

Volunteer Point is one of the islands' most popular destinations, accessible from the capital Stanley by a three-hour ride - including 17km of bumpy, boggy, off-road track - in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The peninsula is also home to gentoos and magellanic penguins - known locally as jackasses because of their braying call - as well as oystercatchers, South American terns and ruddy-headed geese.

LIKE A HITCHCOCK FILM

Another of the Falklands' stunning locations for wildlife watching is Kidney Island, where rockhoppers use their claws and beaks to help them get to the top of cliffs where they will mate.

In order to see the birds, visitors must trek for half an hour through 3m-tall tussac grass while avoiding ground bird nests.

But a bird called the sooty shearwater is what makes the island truly unique.

"Kidney Island is home to 140,000 breeding pairs of sooty shearwaters that are just rafting off the coast here ready to come in," Ms Denise Blake, the Falklands government's environmental officer, told Agence France-Presse during a visit to the outlying island.

"So, as night falls, you really see them swooping in over the heads, a bit like the Hitchcock movie where all the birds start circling in. It's incredible for that."

While many nature lovers head to places such as Antarctica and South Georgia - an island in the South Atlantic - Ms Sally Ellis, manager of International Tours and Travel, feels the Falklands are a better option.

"Antarctica and South Georgia are nothing compared to the variety and accessibility of wildlife in the Falkland Islands, and it costs about a quarter (to visit)," she said, adding that there was nearly a "guarantee" of visitors seeing whatever wildlife they desire.

Beyond birds, the endangered sei whale is found off the coast of the Falklands, while the distinctive black and white Commerson's dolphins swim near Yorke Bay and Gypsy Cove.

LEAP OF FAITH

In addition to wildlife watching, adventure tourism is also growing in the Falklands, where enterprising locals are branching into the industry.

Married couple Tom and Jane Chater recently launched a business offering helicopter trips and tours.

They are hoping to attract some of the 60,000 people a year who arrive in the Falklands from cruise ships by offering the chance to explore the islands from their four-seater Robinson R-44 helicopter.

"It's been a very busy and exciting time for us," said Mr Chater, 43.

"It's something we thought about for a long time," added Mrs Chater, 46. "It's a leap of faith, but we're keen to see how it works out."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2019, with the headline 'Penguins drive tourism in the Falklands'. Print Edition | Subscribe