Over two days the excitement was mounting. We were heading for the Falklands. It was coolish. We’d lost the heat of Brazil a while back. There was no lolling in the Jacuzzi on the top deck. We were out of our shorts and sandals and wrapped up in fleeces. At the front of the boat a group of ardent bird watchers had been perpetually huddled. I think they lived there. To compensate for the rapidly cooling weather we were getting a glimpse of more interesting birds. It kept the twitchers in a constant state of enthrallment. As I joined them for furtive short periods of scanning the seas for signs of whales, dolphins and seas they eagerly recounted to me, in hushed voices, that a storm petrel had spent the night on the boat. It had huddled into a corner of the top deck. One of the doughty birdmen had actually picked it up and launched it back into freedom. I wondered, quietly to myself. If that was quite how the petrel might have viewed it. There it was minding its own business, sheltering from the cold and getting a free lift into the bargain, when some tosser tossed back out into the elements. Freedom is relative. Another twitcher, all wide-eyed and disbelieving, explained to me that a Noddy had actually spent the entire night perched on the rail at the stern of the ship. I had pictures of a funny little chap with a pointy blue hat sitting on the rail and was wondering if Big ears was going to join him but I was soon disabused of such a silly notion. A noddy is a bird. I was merely annoyed that nobody had thought to tell me about these treasures so that I could get a photograph of them.
However I did manage to get photos of the Giant Petrels that materialized out of nowhere to drift around in the sky around the ship. They were big birds with a wingspan of half a mile or more, according to one of the bird men. I found it amazing to think of these birds floating about in the sky hundreds of miles away from land and never resting. It was explained to me that they’d evolved a mechanism to shut down half their brain at a time in order to sleep on the wing. I couldn’t see how birds that size managed to stay up in the air at all, let alone for months on end. They were masters of the currents.
I was not. I frequently decided that the more frigid air was good in small doses. But I could see why they hung around the ship – it must have been boring out there with nothing but an unending expanse of ocean. We were entertainment.
The first sight of the Falklands was exciting. The rugged hills and shoreline came into sight looking bright and mist enclosed in the early morning light with cloud caps on the higher ground. As we nudged into the bay, towards Port Stanley, we could see the shore with its
green hummocks and just make out little groups of penguins waddling on the sand. I could understand how an army could easily secrete itself in the place. The island could have been invaded and garrisoned without anybody knowing. It looked rugged and uninhabited.
We moored a long way out. We could not, for some obscure reason, get any closer in to the harbor. The sea was choppy and we were going to go ashore via a half hour journey in ‘tenders’. That sounded intriguing. The ‘tenders’ turned out to be our lifeboats. I found that reassuring. At least it meant that the lifeboats worked and that the crew were getting practice launching them.
The journey in was very choppy. We bounced about and were sprayed with water. It added to the drama. I couldn’t help feeling like I was one of the troops heading in to free the island from the fascist invaders. (That strange mood was probably a residue of having accidentally read an account in the Sun or the wonderful Daily Express – you know – those right-wing dispensers of fantasy, establishment propaganda and patriotic jingoism that pass as newspapers.) The moment carried me along. I was going to step foot on the fabled disputed kingdom of the southern Atlantic – the gateway to the Antartic. Of course, it was fought over because of the need to protect its British citizens (nothing to do with the oil and minerals).
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