Two Tales of the Falkland Islands (Part II)

Penguins vs. The World

Though the Falkland Islands are sparsely populated with humans, they have historically had a great ecosystem for wildlife. There are numerous, beautiful schools of fish that surround the island, and nearly 700,000 sheep on land. For those keeping count at home, that’s about 230 sheep per person. Lot of sheep. But they actually have one bigger wildlife attraction — penguins. At latest count, there were 1 million penguins, of five different species, that graced the island. That’s 330 penguins per person. Each person could have a little penguin army walking around with them.

These penguins are now one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Falklands. But their history has been a roller coaster, and nearly as dramatic as the wartime travails of the British and Argentines.

In the 1700s, penguins were not only on the islands — they ran them. It’s estimated that, back then, there were 10 million of these little guys roaming around. Unfortunately, the Spanish, English, and French discoveries of the islands were not so friendly to the penguins. The colonists weren’t outright hunting them (thank God), but what actually transpired was just as macabre. The real culprit — whales.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as these colonies were taking shape on the islands, the whale oil industry was booming worldwide. It was used as a cheap illuminant in various candles and lamps, and as the base for soaps as well. There were plenty of whales around the Falklands, and harvesting their oil became a key concern for the colonies. Now, the colonists became pretty good at catching the whales. But the whales on their own weren’t very valuable, and it was impossible to ship them whole across the Atlantic. So the tricky part came when they had to figure out how to extract the oils there on the islands.

In order to do so, the colonists had to get the whales on land, cut away the blubber from the whale’s body, and boil strips of this blubber over a fire. Once boiling, the blubber fat would render into oil and they could ship the oil off to their homelands for $$$. Now, the real challenge was creating this fire. The Falklands are very much like Iceland — you could speed around the Ring Road (s/o internationally wanted speeding criminals Manoj and Mehul), but you may never see an actual tree. So colonists had an awfully difficult time building fires of the strength required to render an entire whale’s fat. They could burn the whale oil itself, but this seemed kind of silly.

One clever (sadistic?) explorer had a breakthrough idea — what if they burnt penguins? (Told you this got pretty bleak.) The penguins were honestly ideal for this use case — the layers of fat under a penguin’s skin made it highly, and sustainably, flammable. In one of the worst sentences I’ve read recently, someone described the rationale as the following.

Penguins are flightless and unafraid of humans, so anytime the rendering fires got too low, whalers simply grabbed a penguin or two and tossed ’em on top.

Yikes, man.

This method for harvesting whale oil took off and colonists were nabbing penguins left and right. It was so popular, in fact, that the penguin population dwindled from 10 million to 500,000 by the mid-1800s. The future of penguins on the Falklands didn’t look great.

Thankfully, the whale oil business screeched to a halt in the 1860s as low-cost, better-smelling alternatives like kerosene gained popularity. (Whaling and whale oil are now banned around the world #savethewhales.) So the penguins had a new lease on life! For the next few decades, the penguin population slowly grew back above 5 million and they lived peaceful lives. This all changed again, however, when the British decided to try and monetize their Falklands colony by establishing fishing zones around the islands. In doing so, they propped up the fishing industry there and it took off. The problem was the penguins’ diets were heavily dependent on fish and suddenly they had to compete with local fishermen and international fishing companies alike. This was disastrous for the penguins and again led to a precipitous decline in their numbers. Around 6 million penguins became less than 500,000 in just 10 years, and the Falklands War was on right around the corner (see Part I). Things did not look good for our dear penguin friends.

Post-War Penguins

Part I and Part II of this story collided and the penguins helplessly watched as the Argentine and British forces waged war on each other in 1982, bombing each other constantly and setting up land mines all over the coast. But 70 days later, the penguins were still alive and a relative calm had come back over the islands. In the next few years, the penguin population miraculously started to grow again. There were a few reasons for this — the war had disrupted the fishing industry in a pretty big way, and even as people returned to the waters, they were catching fewer fish than ever.

Additionally, the war made Argentina and England real nervous around each other. One effect of that was that both countries were extremely hesitant to drill for oil around The Falklands for fear of upsetting each other, even though reports in the 1990s estimated there were 11 billion barrels (nearly $500B) of oil there. This development has worked out really nicely for the penguins — around the world, tiny oil spills have killed massive numbers of penguins. As you know, penguins can’t fly, and they rely on a delicate balance of oils in their fur to float naturally in the water. With even the smallest oil spill, this balance is tilted and penguins’ entire lives are disrupted.

Though these two factors certainly helped, experts estimate the biggest factor in the penguins’ increased prosperity was something else entirely. You remember those land mines? Throughout the war, more than 20,000 land mines had been laid out across the islands’ coasts. When Britain reclaimed control, they tried to uproot these minefields, but found the process to be extremely time-consuming, expensive, and, frankly, dangerous. So they gave up, and instead fenced off all of the minefields, warning people to stay away from these lands at all costs.

These minefields also happen to be the penguins’ natural habitat. And because these little guys are too light and fluffy to ever set off a land mine, they can roam around totally free. These accidental penguin sanctuaries have allowed the penguins to thrive, and their population has more than doubled since the Falklands War in the 1980s. And, these penguins drive so much ecotourism that citizens of the Falklands have demanded that the British government promise to never remove the land mines.

So the next time you’re in the Falklands, make sure to tour a minefield full of Rockhopper, Magellanic, King, Gentoo, and Macaroni penguins. You’ll simultaneously be drinking in the history of the British-Argentine war, and these majestic creatures. I’ll leave you all with some unbelievably cute pictures of these homies.