Volunteer Point is named after the Volunteer, a ship that visited the Falkland Islands in 1815. This privately owned nature reserve is on a narrow strip of short grass that connects East Falkland to the headland of Volunteer Point itself and is bordered by the two-mile-long Volunteer Beach to the north and by Volunteer Lagoon to the south. The wardens’ house is at the western end of the grassy area, while the king penguin colony is at the eastern end.
This colony is one of the highlights of any visit to the Falkland Islands – it is the largest colony of this species on the islands and is still increasing. There are two additional species of penguin, and many other birds breed in this fabulous scenery. As you near the site on the tracks from Johnson’s Harbour, the whole area opens up spectacularly before you, revealing the lagoon, penguins and beach.
What to see and do at Volunteer Point
The main penguin colony does move slightly from year to year, but is always located between the valley and the southern boundary fence. These birds are used to the presence of visitors throughout the year but a distance of 7.5m must be respected. It is possible to get close views of the birds by sitting beside their main routes to the sea and waiting for them to come and inspect you. The majority of the inactive birds in the main group are probably incubating their huge, single egg. This egg is sometimes visible on top of the penguin’s feet as it awaits incubation, but is hidden when the bird sits down. The penguin’s stiff tail feathers help prop the bird upright when it is incubating or roosting. Penguins can also rest by lying prone on the ground but seem to prefer to remain upright, presumably as this gives a better chance of spotting any approaching predators.
The air around the rookery is full of soft piping noises through the summer. This sound is the young calling to their parents. When just hatched these youngsters are small enough to stay hidden under the folds of their parents’ skin, especially on cold windy days, but as they get larger, or on warm days, their heads peep out just above the parents’ feet. Chicks, which have grown too big to fit under the parent birds, still try to hide by pushing their heads into their former haven. They look a rather comical sight, only their head hidden, the rest of the body exposed to the elements. As they grow, the chicks grow a very fluffy, brown, downy coat to protect them from the cold.
The main breeding activity takes place around the principal flock, but there are usually several smaller groups nearby. There may be some young birds in these satellite groups, but they are usually non-breeding adults. Males seeking a mate wander around the main group, adopting a very exaggerated strutting walk and batting each other with their flippers. Owing to their staggered breeding cycle there will always be some pairs starting earlier than others, but generally birds will be incubating between November and January with small young being visible from early in the new year until late February, after which they will be much easier to see as they are too big to hide under their parents.
The majority of the birds return to the sea at Volunteer Beach. Some walk in the other direction, to the lagoon, where they can be seen washing and splashing about in the shallows. The low banks above the small beach on the edge of the lagoon make a good vantage point for observing these birds. Sometimes they can be seen swimming in the shallow water and the graceful speed of their movements is in stark contrast to their upright waddling gait on land.
Gentoo and magellanic penguins
King penguins constitute the main attraction of Volunteers, as the sanctuary is known on the island, but they are not the only penguins breeding prolifically on this grassy bank. Two colonies of gentoo penguins occupy the lagoon side of the bank a short walk from the king penguins. The number of colonies has varied over the years. Sometimes two groups of gentoo penguins will merge, while in other years they will remain apart, but the overall number of birds does not vary significantly, with around 1,000 pairs using this site in recent years. By late summer all the young will have been gathered into crèches in the middle of the colony for protection from predatory birds. It is quite a sight when the young race after their returning parents to beg for food. The adult’s purpose is twofold: it wants to teach its offspring to feed and also wants to ensure that it is nurturing its own young and not its neighbours’.
Magellanic penguins prefer the beach side of the bank where the drier, sandy ground is much more suitable for digging burrows than the wet, peaty ground. The bank above the beach is, therefore, riddled with both used and unused penguin burrows.
Other flora and fauna
After the penguin colonies have been visited there is plenty more to see. The flora is dominated by grasses thanks to the grazing birds and sheep. Some of the wetter valleys are full of gunnera, with its inedible red berries hidden under the leaves in late summer. The most colourful flower is the sea cabbage with its silvery white leaves, fluffy to the touch and topped by bright yellow flowers at the height of the summer. The seeds formed during January are a preferred food of the islands’ smallest finches, the black-chinned siskins. The sea cabbage grows above the shoreline, anchoring the shifting sands.
In the lee of the sea cabbage, small groups of waders gather in late summer, the majority of which are white-rumped sandpipers that have come from North America to winter on the islands. The other birds are the resident two-banded plovers, which breed above the high-tide mark, so it is sometimes possible to find some of the young racing from one clump of sea cabbage to the next.
The second most frequent species, after penguins, are geese. Upland geese and ruddy-headed geese frequent all grassy areas. By late summer they have gathered into large family groups. Habitually the males gather together flocks of juveniles, irrespective of their parentage or age. According to one theory, this behaviour suggests that the males use unrelated offspring as an avian shield for their own goslings, the probability being that any predator will not detect their young. The predators here are mostly avian; turkey vultures and variable hawks are the most numerous and can be seen around most penguin colonies, while peregrine falcons circle high over Volunteer Point.
The small islets beyond Volunteer Point, although out of sight at the far end of the reserve, are the haunts of fur seals; visitors are not allowed to access these areas, but the seals can sometimes be seen zooming through the surf on to the beach. Elephant seals have been recorded on some of the sand beaches but, like fur seals, they often pick sites that are not readily accessible to tourists.
Travel to Volunteer Point
The majority of visitors who reach Volunteer Point do so via the road and track from Stanley – the drive to and from the site is an experience in itself. It is only possible to get to Volunteer Point in a 4×4 and previous experience of driving over the soft, boggy ground that typifies camp is essential, as many inexperienced drivers have realised to their cost. The penguin colony is only about 45 miles from Stanley using the road to Johnson’s Harbour, after which point tracks over camp can be followed.
It is advisable to book a seat on an organised day trip before you reach the Falkland Islands as they do get booked up quickly, especially when a cruise ship docks in Stanley. As you will be travelling over private land your driver will have the appropriate permission to visit this site. These tours typically leave Stanley between 08.00 and 09.00 and return between 16.00 and 18.00, depending on how long you stay at the colony. These trips cost in the region of £150 upwards per person.
For experienced self-drivers, vehicles can follow the road from Stanley to Port Louis. To do so, take the Darwin Road, which passes turnings to other settlements en route. It is only tarmacked in sections on the way to MPA – the rest of the drive is along the gravel roads typically found in the rest of the Falkland Islands. Despite this, you can drive all the way to Port Louis in a normal vehicle with a typical journey taking 35–40 minutes.
Volunteer Point was on the cruise-ship route but, as landing cannot be guaranteed owing to the large swells that crash on the shore, this is now a rare event.