Sea Lion Island, one of the smallest islands in the Falklands, is one of the most popular destinations for visitors. Lying ten miles (17km) from East Falkland, this island forms a plateau rising to approximately 100ft. It is five miles long and just over one mile at its widest point. From Bull Hill, at the western end, the island slopes gently down eastwards to the open sandy beaches. There are a number of pools on the island. The tussac grass extends around some of the coast away from the cliffs, while inland the habitat is short-cropped turf.
This island has the most accessible breeding colonies of southern sea lions and southern elephant seals. It also has one of the highest densities of breeding birds on the islands. It is one of the best places to see one of the most endangered birds of prey in the world, the striated caracara, locally known as the Johnny Rook.
The sheer abundance of wildlife in such a small area makes Sea Lion Island a must on even the shortest of trips to the Falklands, but especially for those interested in photography: many of the published photographs of Falklands’ wildlife have been taken on Sea Lion Island.
What to see and do on Sea Lion Island
In sheltered spots there is the chance of meeting sleeping sea lions or elephant seals. Upon arrival, visitors are given a rough map of the island from the lodge, on which one area, East Loafers on the southern coast, is marked as being out of bounds as this is the main breeding area for southern sea lions. These are dangerous animals and are best viewed from the top of the cliff. Southern elephant seals, easily seen around the sandy shores of the eastern end of the island, are a different matter as they are less aggressive. However, you must keep a respectful distance from them – the standard advice is to remain at least one of their body lengths from them, and to make sure that they always have access to the sea, never getting between them and the water.
Of the 50-plus species of birds in the Falklands archipelago, two deserve a special mention. The Falkland skua can be very energetic in defence of its territory, by dive-bombing any intruder. Most of the skuas nest in the open grass at the western end of the island, with a few nesting just off the main track from the lodge towards the eastern end of the island. These large birds can be seen on the nest and are best admired from a certain distance. This distance will vary from bird to bird, but when they start to sit up and take notice of you, it is the time to find an alternative route. The other species is the striated caracara – these beautiful, inquisitive birds of prey have a strong liking for shiny or brightly coloured objects so when they’re in the area, it is a good idea to keep a close eye on your possessions.
Walking around Sea Lion Island on the open, grassy turf is fairly undemanding but, as everywhere, there are some essential ground rules. At the lodge, and on the introductory tour, advice is given regarding the ground rules for the welfare of the wildlife. This enables the visitor to approach both animals and birds safely, without causing the wildlife any distress.
Cow Point, North East Point and Elephant Corner
It is possible to explore the eastern end of the island before lunch. The closest beach, Cow Bay, can be reached by cutting across the field to the north of the lodge and continuing down a shallow valley through the tussac grass towards the sand. Many magellanic penguins nest in this area, including one pair often seen using a burrow almost under one of the old stiles. A walk westwards along the beach should find upland geese and kelp geese, as well as several noisy groups of magellanic oystercatchers.
Turning around and heading east, one can walk along the sand towards Cow Point. The sand does disappear in places and it becomes necessary to walk over flat rocks. Two stretches of large boulders, around 100yds along the beach, can be difficult to navigate so take care. This area has many small birds, including Cobb’s wrens, popping in and out of the stones at your feet, while elegant dark-faced ground-tyrant catch flies at the top of the beach. From Cow Point, small numbers of gentoo penguins can be seen porpoising their way back to the shore through the banks of offshore kelp. These penguins are making their way to the long sandy beach that stretches eastwards from here. The large gentoo colony is a dominating presence at the top of the beach and is clearly designated, a wire fence ensuring that the penguins are not disturbed. It is always worthwhile looking at this colony to see if there are any king penguins present.
Behind the sand beach, shallow temporary pools which form when high tides coincide with windy days to push water into this area, can sometimes be seen. When the pools are present, many small wading birds can be found feeding in them. Along with the two-banded plovers, there are often many white-rumped sandpipers that have come here from their North American breeding grounds. Continuing east for less than 10 minutes to the far end of the beach, there is a small colony of southern giant petrels.
A few minutes’ walk south from the giant petrel colony takes you to a beach that both magellanic oystercatchers and blackish oystercatchers can be found nesting at the top of. As their nests are well camouflaged, walkers must watch out for displaying adults and thus avoid the nesting sites. The beach is also another favourite haul-out site for elephant seals, with one favoured site at the eastern end of this beach, and even more found at the western end, a 20-minute stroll away.
Just beyond the big haul-out site, you can walk around 100yds on to some grassy slopes (a super place to watch both upland geese and ruddy-headed geese), behind which there is a small bay, the aptly named Elephant Corner. Here, visitors can push through the tussac grass on the path of least resistance in order to reach a low promontory in the middle of the cove. The elephant seals can be viewed in safety from here and it is an excellent spot for photography.
Travel to Sea Lion Island
The majority of visitors arrive by plane on the 35-minute FIGAS flight from Stanley or from other places on Falkland. These local flights operate daily on demand. Those arriving by air are met and taken to the lodge where they are given a short time to settle in and then, if they wish, taken on an optional introductory guided 4×4 tour (£30) which points out the main areas to visit and what to look out for on a 1–2-hour drive around the island’s major sites.
Occasionally, cruise ships visiting the archipelago include a stop at the island in their itinerary; these are weather-dependent and therefore cannot be confirmed in advance. Those arriving on a cruise ship are usually welcomed in the lodge and then left to explore independently.
For those with their own boat it is possible to visit, but there are no moorings and the exposed nature of the island means that anchoring is at your own risk. As with other islands on the Falklands, it is advisable to contact the lodge before sailing.