Saunders Island is considered one of the premiere wildlife destinations in the Falkland Islands. The island is owned by David and Suzan Pole-Evans, and it is a working sheep farm. Three areas (the settlement, the neck and the rookery) have been set up for tourists who want to self-cater and don’t mind roughing it a bit to gain access to some of the most spectacular wildlife photographic opportunities in the world. The waiting list for these highly coveted self-catering cottages is several years long, and we were lucky enough to find space available at both the neck and the rookery due to cancellations. If you are even remotely considering visiting during peak tourist season (Dec – Feb), you must make a booking at least 3 years out to avoid disappointment because the neck can only house a maximum of 8 pax and the rookery can only accommodate 4 pax. These slots go fast especially since photo tour groups will book years in advance to secure the most coveted months for wild life activity. We had 2 nights at the neck and 3 nights at the rookery and loved all 5 days. Saunders Island lived up to all the hype…being the only people mere feet away from colonies of black-browed albatross, king cormorants, southern rockhopper penguins and being able to observe their behavior for hours on end was priceless. Plus watching sea lions and dolphins surf in the waves, and skuas stealing eggs from the hapless penguins…better than any wildlife documentary. Early November is considered the beginning of tourist season and we got extremely lucky with the weather with beautiful sunny days. Our 5 magical days at Saunders Island flew by. Huge thanks to Suzan and David for sharing their slice of paradise with us…this visit was truly a dream come true.
The Neck: Very nice cabin with toilet and shower facilities. Two identical rooms with 2 sets of bunk beds in each room (up to 4 people per room), plus a lounge area with kitchen and couches to socialize. Stove, fridge, microwave, sink, and dishes to self cater. A perfect set up in one of the best wild life spots in the world. Truly a slice of paradise. Susan and David Pole-Evans brought out clean sheets, towels, pillow cases and we made up our beds. Susan showed us how to use the generator, which needs to be checked twice a day. Easy to see why this place gets booked up 3 years in advance. We feel lucky that we got 2 nights here! The bunk beds are built with little room to spare and our room was especially creaky at night, with the wind blowing strong all night long.
The Rookery: Excellent, newly built cabin with all the amenities. Massive living room with two arm chairs and a saggy couch, fully stocked kitchen, microwave, fridge and oven. Perfect for self caterers. Each bedroom has two regular beds, so the cabin only accommodates 4 people total. Lovely hot water throughout and heaters in each room so you can wash/dry your laundry overnight. No WiFi signal here though as it is too remote, and no radio either. There is an emergency walkie-talkie (handheld 2 way radio) to find out flight/departure time back to the Saunders Settlement. Nearby is a generator house, but during the 3 days we were here, we didn’t have to start it once as the batteries were fully charged. Highlights here are the secret albatross stream and rockhopper shower. Watching the albatross soar overhead was a treat and we spent several hours delighting in their antics.
7 Nov: At noon sharp we boarded the FIGAS plane and flew to Pebble Island (along with fellow passenger Rene AKA “Herman German” from Germany/UK). Then it was a 10 minute onward flight to Saunders where Susan was standing by to meet us. We met 2 happy clients who loved their 2 nights at the neck (they were on our Latam flight), and they had beaming smiles from their experience. Susan took us to the settlement to buy some groceries (spaghetti, mushroom sauce, cup of soup, and bread) and drove us approximately 45 minutes to the neck. A cruise ship was tendering at the neck today to our dismay, but she said it was only a 4 hour excursion. Renee was super funny and it was a fun ride out to the Neck. Susan showed us our comfortable accommodations (better than expected) and we quickly made up our beds, packed our lunches and head out just after 2 pm. Renee went to Elephant Seal Point, but we looked on a map and it was way too far away, so we opted to go to the rockhopper/albatross/imperial cormorant colonies at the top of the hill. The cruise passengers had taken zodiacs to shore, but they were on a very tight leash, only allowed to wander on the beach. Which meant that we had the entire place to ourselves. Pure magic. Easily one of the top wildlife places we have ever been to as all three birds were intermingled and going through their mating rituals. Very, very cool and an unforgettable experience. The albatross were particularly loving, nuzzling each other with their long beaks. The imperial cormorants did an intricate dance with their necks intertwined, and swaying from one side to another…a very neat “dance”. And the rockhoppers threw their heads back and shrilled loudly. We did spot a lone macaroni penguin amongst the rockhoppers. Apparently, he didn’t realize that he was in the wrong colony! He had a rockhopper mate who was trying to protect 2 eggs. One was unceremoniously thrown to the ground and the other slipped out from under her wing as he viciously and repeatedly pecked at her back. Not sure why he was so abusive towards her but it looked painful and she had tufts of feather pulled out and bare patches on her back. Poor female rockhopper. He was a very abusive partner! We spent hours watching the albatross soar above us, some of them swooping down low and doing drive bys. On the walk back, we spotted 2 rabbits and several Magellanic penguins and several skuas. The skuas had stolen lots of penguin eggs and left the shell remnants at the edge of the sand dunes. A seal was patrolling the water, and we felt bad for the penguins who dared enter the water as they were playing Russian roulette with their lives. It was 8 pm before we got back to the cabin. We grabbed a cup of tea and coffee and cooked up some spaghetti for dinner. Had a nice chat with Renee who told us a funny story about taking his Indian/Filipino workers to an island and one of them stole a rockhopper’s egg to eat! Didn’t want to stay up late talking but it was nearly 10 pm before we took showers and settled in the for the night. Tomorrow we are planning on getting up for sunrise at 4:30 am to see how the weather looks.
8 Nov: Got up at 4:30 am for sunrise which was a nice pink. Climbed up to the rockhopper colony and watched their antics. Then hung out with the albatross. It was very windy so the albatross were not flying, but we liked watching them on their nests. Hung out until nearly 8 am. On the walk back, saw a goose sitting on 4 eggs. She hopped up in a hurry when she saw us coming, abandoning her eggs. Apparently she will circle back once we are out of sight. Turned on the generator for a few hours since we were down to 3 bars (4 green bars is max level). Said hi to Rene and had breakfast of cereal and toast and peanut butter/nutella. Left at 9:30 am to hang back out with the colony with rockhoppers, albatross and shags. Watched the albatross flying (not as frequent as yesterday), and some of them flew just overhead. Ran into Rene who did a quick hike but didn’t linger as long as us. Went down to the beach to hang out with the king penguins and look for the leopard seal but no luck. Went back to eat lunch at 12:30 (cup of soup and peanut butter on toast). Decided to take a nap at 1:30 – 3 pm, and as luck would have it, Rene found the leopard seal lounging on the wide open beach! We head out from 3:30 to 6 pm, walking down to see where the rockhoppers come down to the sea and then head back to our favorite colony. It started raining at 6 so we called it and had an early night hanging at the lodge. Rene made us jealous with his photos and videos of the leopard seal! Maybe tomorrow we will get lucky…fingers crossed. Had dinner of spaghetti with sauce and tuna…yum. Rene broke out his bottle of wine and shared a glass with us which was quite nice.
9 Nov: Alarm at 4:30 am. Up for sunrise which looked disappointing at first but colors grew from 5 am onward. Walked along beach from end to end, no leopard seal in sight. Went to rockhopper penguin swimming pool and took photos/videos and then back to the hut for breakfast. Rene was up early and already about taking albatross photos. We removed our sheets from the beds and packed up, ready to leave by noon (according to Susan for our pick up time for transport to the Rookery). Took binos with us and walked up but couldn’t see anything on the beach so we went to the colony. Spent time with our favorite colony and spotted some dolphins in the surf. Then came down and walked the beach. Found a penguin carcass and turkey vultures devouring it. Still no leopard seal. But as we walked to the other end of the beach, we saw it surfing and managed to take a few photos. It looked like it would have surfed to shore but we scared it away as it made direct eye contact. There were also commerson’s dolphins playing in the surf so who knows what spooked it. Back to the hut by noon and Rene said Susan was delayed until 13:30 so we went back down the beach. Rene joined us and we enjoyed the fine weather and watching dolphins playing in the surf. A group of 4 was dropped off, so we grabbed our stuff and shuttled back to the settlement where we bought some groceries for our last 3 nights at the Rookery. Saw baby lambs wearing hand knit sweaters…too cute! 30 minute drive to the Rookery which was very modern and new compared to the lodging at the Neck which was more rustic. Ate a late lunch of vegetable soup and peanut butter/nutella sandwiches and then went to the penguin waterfall (amazing). The albatross colony here is massive, right at the edge of a cliff. It was absolutely spectacular and very different from the Neck. We loved both places. The waterfall shower was really cool and it was fun watching dirty penguins go there to get clean. Just amazing. Walked all around the various colonies and by 7:30 pm, we saw Rene hiking back from Mount Rookery so we decided to hike up it for a nice view. Little did we know the mountain keeps going up and up and up. We did have spectacular views from one end, and decided to see it from the other end but never quite made it to the very top. It was 8:12 pm when we finally headed back down, and it took us nearly 40 minutes to hike back down. Good thing we didn’t push on as we would have been hiking in the dark. Took a hot shower and did some much needed laundry and had mushroom soup and tuna pasta for dinner. Rene gave us some photos and videos of his trip here…very nice of him! He will be getting picked up at 8 am and we will miss him as he has been good company these past few days. In bed before midnight, making today the longest day of our trip so far.
10 Nov: Neither one of us wanted to get up early for sunrise so we had a bit of a lie in this morning. At 6:30 we heard Rene’s footsteps on the creaking floor boards and then dead silence. By the time we got up just after 7 am, we discovered he had departed early. He had mentioned wanting to explore the bird life around the lake down the hill, so we suspected he had gone off to do that. So that meant we had the whole place to ourselves! We took our time having breakfast of cereal and toast, and then reviewed a few of yesterday’s penguin waterfall photos so we would know what to improve on. By 8:30 we were out the door and it was another glorious day. A bit windy but the albatross were flying so we took plenty of flight photos before making our way to our favorite spot on the island, the penguin waterfall. Lots of action this morning which made it hard to focus on just one penguin at a time, but we managed. It was magnificent just sitting around and watching the penguins for hours. At one point it threatened to rain, so we took cover nearby, about halfway up the hill. Thankfully the rain only lasted a few minutes, followed by glorious sunshine so we emerged to watch the penguins hop back to safety from the sea. It was fascinating watching as they hopped their way up the hill to their respective colonies. The rockhoppers have built 2 colonies way up the mountain, and they have to run the gauntlet through predator birds (great skuas, striated caracara, and turkey vultures). Poor things! They had just survived the leopard seals and sea lions out at sea, and now they have to hop for their lives from the birds of prey. We understood their fear because we had seen a freshly killed penguin carcass yesterday being eagerly devoured by the turkey vultures. By 12:30, we were feeling hungry so we headed back to the cabin for lunch and a siesta. At 3:15, we were back out to observe the albatross. Dozens of them were returning for the sea, and Robby remarked it reminded him of a busy airport landing strip. Very cool to watch and hopefully we got some nice shots of them in flight mode. By 5:30 pm, it was back to the waterfall since today had been a fantastic sunny day and we were hoping for the perfect light to take more photos. By late afternoon, even a couple of brave king cormorants had decided to linger under the waterfall. Interesting to note that none of the penguins dared to peck at them! It was a magical afternoon, watching the penguins jostle and fight amongst themselves for the premium shower spots and pecking at those who took too long! Albatross were swooping low overhead, and we got some great shots of them flying by. And the afternoon sun was warm with minimal winds. The perfect way to spend a few hours. Since Robby had brought his GoPro out this afternoon, he decided to put it on the “penguin path” leading up the hill to get some action footage but they kept stopping midway to rest and preen themselves…too funny! Two skuas flew overhead and the pack of rockhoppers that had tirelessly made its way up the hill scurried back downhill en masse. Thankfully the skuas kept going, so they turned around yet again and made the tortuous journey up the hill. We thought it was interesting the skuas had no fear of us, and neither did the Johnny Rooks (striated caracara). By 7:30 pm, we were ready for dinner so back to the cabin we went. By 8 pm, we had spam and onions on the stove and pasta boiling. We had been talking about this meal all day and it did not disappoint with the carbonara sauce…yum. Since Rene had given us “March of the Penguins”, we decided to watch a bit during dinner. Phenomenal day!
11 Nov: Slept in again this morning and boy did it feel good! Up by 7:30 for breakfast before preparing the GoPro for some action video today. First thing was to find some tape so we could stick it to a mini-tripod. Then we had to go test it out on the penguin highway. But an albatross trying to greet Becky with a beak “handshake” got us sidetracked and we started filming it instead. Eventually we got to the rockhoppers and had loads of fun placing the camera in strategic places, hoping they would not just hop around it. By mid-morning, we were down by the penguin waterfall and were able to place the camera under the overhang, for a unique view of the penguins showering, bathing and preening themselves. Magic! Then it was a short hike to the secret stream (dubbed by Rene) where some albatrosses had decided to nest. Great morning and we returned for lunch at 2 pm before turning right around and heading out the door for more wildlife time. About a dozen king cormorants were viciously attacking a bush for parts to build their nests and we thought we had some amazing footage but the GoPro battery died. Boo! Just as suddenly as they had appeared, they flew off so we missed out on capturing that insane moment. But we did get loads of opportunities to film the penguins hopping up and down Mt Rookery as well as more shower time for the rockhoppers. We then stumbled upon an albatross courtship and filmed that before finally visiting the pond down the hill. There were colonies of gentoos and some bird life but nothing spectacular. Worth visiting once though, and we were glad we had decided to devote 90% of our time up by the Rookery’s main highlights. Back to the hut by 7:30 pm and we radioed in for our pickup time and found out we were on the first flight to Sea Lion Island, so that meant to have our bags packed and ready to go by 8:30 am. Dinner was tuna pasta with marinara sauce, followed by “March of the Penguins”. We will be sad to leave this amazing place. Suzan and David have built a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise here and we feel so privileged to have experienced it. Just freaking amazing.
12 Nov: Alarm at 4:30 am revealed a lot of fog so we went back to sleep until 7 am. We were a bit worried that our flight would be delayed or cancelled but we were ready to go by 8:30 am. Good thing since Anthony (married to David’s sister) picked us up on time. He gave the shack a once over – vacuuming and emptying out the trash and made it a point to thank us for leaving the place so neat and tidy. We were driven to the settlement where we had a 90 minute wait for the plane to arrive so we killed some time playing with the animals. A 10 week old puppy was separated from the other dogs so we gave her some attention and went to check out the ponies. Then we hung out in the self catering cottage until Suzan and David showed up to settle the bill (1000 for 5 nights, transport for 2 to the neck and the rookery and 19 for miscellaneous groceries). The plane to Saunders was delayed slightly as a veterinarian was having a difficult time delivering a calf. By 11 am we were off and 40 minutes later we landed at Stanley where the plane refueled.