Saunders Island

This island, lying three miles off the northwest coast of West Falkland, comprises 30,000 acres with just over 66 miles of coastline and is operated as one farm. It is historically important in the islands as it was the site of the first British settlement in 1765. The present-day settlement is situated at the base of a range of hills, the highest of which is Rookery Mountain (1,384ft, 422m).

The high cliffs to the north of this range are home to many breeding seabirds, in particular black-browed albatrosses, and rockhopper penguins. These hills are separated from the highest peak on the island, Mount Harston (1,421ft, 436m) by a sandy isthmus known as The Neck. The southwestern part of the island reaches 1,220ft (372m) at the summit of Mount Rees. The lower land between the settlement and Mount Rees has some pools and is the site of the island’s airstrip. The island has become well known as being home to one of the most accessible black-browed albatross colonies on Falkland situated along the northern coasts.

What to see and do on Saunders Island

There is superb walking in the vicinity of both cottages in the settlement. It is possible to book 4×4 excursions from the settlement; both The Neck and the Rookery – the two main sites on the island – are easily reached on day trips from here. Tours out to The Neck are only run for those spending a minimum of two nights in the settlement. At busy times of year on the farm, during shearing periods, for instance, these trips may be curtailed by an hour or so, depending upon other demands on the island owners’ time.

Around the settlement

The settlement contains the main house, the self-catering accommodation, and a mixture of large and small sheds, including the shearing shed that is a hive of activity when the shearing gang are visiting. On an evening walk down to the jetty, visitors will sometimes spot a roosting group of rock shags, and a lucky few have seen a whale or two in the distance in late summer.

A short walk leads you out to the airstrip and then to some pools that have sheltered both silver grebes and white-tufted grebes, a variety of ducks and the occasional black-necked swan. In 1984 the largest of the pools, Big Pond, which is the closest to the settlement, accommodated the largest flock of cinnamon teal that the islands have ever seen when around 20 birds were present. It was thought that they bred there that year. As with any island that lies on the west of the Falklands, there is always the chance that an unusual bird or two will have made its way from South America.

The wildlife colonies below Rookery Mountain

The main attraction of Saunders Island for wildlife enthusiasts is the large colony of black-browed albatrosses that breed along the cliffs on the north coast below Rookery Mountain. The drive out to the colony as part of a day trip from the settlement takes visitors out through the gathering pens before climbing some rather steep slopes to the northeast, through some of the largest areas of Blechnum magellanicum (tall fern) on Falkland before descending to the coast. Depending upon the state of the tide, the track either follows the coastal route or crosses a stream and continues along the beach for a few hundred yards. On the rather low-lying land between this beach and the next, visitors start to see penguins for the first time. Small numbers of magellanic penguins nest on the more arid slopes while gentoo penguins have a small colony a short distance back from the second beach. They can often be seen gathering on the beach in small parties.

Gentoo penguins Saunders Island
Gentoo penguins have a small colony on the island © Ondrej Prosicky, Shutterstock

After climbing the steep track at the far side of the second beach, it is approximately a 10–15-minute drive before the black-browed albatross colony is reached. Visitors are usually allowed to remain for at least a couple of hours at this spectacular site. The time spent here will be dictated by the weather and if the owners who are driving you out there have other commitments back in the settlement. Upon reaching the site, the owners usually leave visitors to their own devices, though they usually give a quick briefing before allowing you to explore. A diddle-dee heath runs down from the top of Rookery Mountain to the edge of the cliff.

The albatross colony is situated along the coast on the top section of the cliff. The adults are present between September and April, the eggs are laid during October and fledged young leave the nest between mid-March and early April. The ideal conditions for observing the colony are bright sunshine and an onshore wind. There is then ample opportunity to try and take the ultimate flight shot of these elegant birds as they cruise low over the clifftop. It is possible to sit a few yards from the colony with birds passing low overhead. As with all wildlife, it is advisable to keep a good distance away from these birds (Falklands Conservation’s code of conduct states 6m), so that they are not disturbed and therefore allowed to behave naturally.

albatross Saunders Island
 The black-browed albatross chicks are hugely popular among visitors to Saunders Island © Nora Yusuf, Shutterstock

The return trip to the settlement can either follow the same route, if time is limited, or you can follow an alternative coastal track if there is more time. The longer route takes you past the beaches and around a headland to the original location of the Port Egmont settlement. If you park up on the south side of the bay, it is only a short walk of a few yards to see the remains of this historic site. The most visible feature above this shallow valley is the site of the restored graves of the five Royal Marines killed at the end of the 1700s. The largest edifice on the other side of the valley is the remains of a large, stone-built structure lying parallel to the shore. This was once the living quarters and main building for the British forces stationed here in 1766. Visitors can wander around this small site trying to imagine what it would have been like to be stationed here without any modern amenities.

The Neck

The drive out to The Neck, one of the Falklands’ best wildlife sites, takes an hour or so along the track from the settlement that can be rather rough depending upon the recent weather conditions. This isthmus is only a 10-minute walk – from the foothills of Mount Richards to the southeast and Mount Harston to the northwest. It takes about 5 minutes to cross between the beaches on either side of the isthmus meaning the whole area is very accessible.

The low sandy bank between the hills has been scoured by the wind over many years, making this an ideal breeding site for gentoo penguins and magellanic penguins. The gentoo penguins have at least nine satellite sites for this extended colony. Birds seem to be coming and going from both beaches, which can be easily accessed from the gently sloping grassy inclines either side. In the past, a lone chinstrap penguin was occasionally seen mixing with the gentoo penguins. It was a rather shy bird and would soon disappear upon the arrival of humans. Although this was some time ago, chinstrap penguins can occur in any penguin colony at odd times, so keep a lookout. This flat land is also popular with large numbers of roosting gulls, and small flocks of waders have been noted at times.

magellanic penguins Saunders Island
Saunders Island is also home to an impressive number of magellanic penguins © Emi, Shutterstock

There is no obvious path beyond the king penguins’ territory along the northwest coast. It is worth persevering over some wire fences on the upper slopes. After some 15–20 minutes you will reach a large rockhopper penguin colony on the steeper slopes. As with all grassy cliffs on Falkland, this can be dangerous in wet or windy weather. In the past, this colony has also contained a small number of macaroni penguins – two were present in the austral summer of 2017–18. Large numbers of king shags nest in with the rockhopper penguins so that, apart from the coming and goings of the penguins along their track to the water, there is a constant aerial passage of shags dropping in and taking off from the colony.

Only a short distance away, continuing east along the coast, is the start of the elongated colony of black-browed albatrosses, which extends all the way to the foot of Rookery Mountain. The majority of these birds tend not to fly over The Neck itself but keep out over the open sea. Consequently, although it is still easy to watch the birds on the nest, there are not so many birds to be observed flying by at close range. When up on the higher slopes, either here at The Neck or indeed at the Rookery, on calm days in late summer it is worth keeping an eye out for various large whales, the most likely being sei whale, which can sometimes be seen feeding in the bay.

Travel to Saunders Island

As with the other outlying islands, there are two ways for tourists to reach Saunders Island – via boat or by air. Travellers can get to the island by air using FIGAS, booking seats on its daily service around the islands. A direct flight from Stanley takes around 40 minutes. Flights can also go via other settlements (at no extra cost) depending on demand.

Cruise ships visiting the island land at either side of The Neck (depending upon which is the sheltered side). There is no quay, so visitors are transferred to the beach via Zodiacs, resulting in a wet landing. The island’s owners will meet guests there and explain where the wildlife is situated and how to maximise the time available. These Zodiac landings usually only allow visitors to stay on the island for a morning or an afternoon, as the ship has usually combined visiting Saunders with other islands such as New, West Point or Carcass.

For those sailing around the islands on their own boat, there is a jetty at the settlement which is used by the inter-island freight boat. It is also possible to anchor near The Neck, but this is an exposed position so a careful eye on the weather is needed. Before landing on the island permission must be granted by the owners.