National Geographic : 2018 Feb
72 national geographic • february 2018 O n the rocky shores of Steeple Jason, a distant island in the Falklands archipela- go, I am awed by the magnificence before me. More than 440,000 black-browed albatrosses, the world’s largest colony, nest on steep cliffs. Along the beach below, southern rockhopper penguins call loudly. The always relentless striated caracaras—known as Johnny rooks—scout for penguin chicks or carrion to eat. The frigid waters host South American fur seals, or- cas, Commerson’s dolphins, Peale’s dolphins, and sei whales. Underwater I swim through a majestic kelp forest that sways gently. Gentoo penguins dart above me, southern sea lions in hot pursuit. Lobster krill line up on the seafloor, pincers raised, as if for battle. The imagery is fitting. I am, after all, in the Falk- lands. War is a common theme. About 250 miles off the coast of Argentina, the British territory consists of more than 700 islands and islets, sparsely settled by about 3,200 people. Best known for the long histo- ry of disputes over the land, involving France, Spain, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, the archipelago wears the scars of war openly. The last conflict, when Argentina invaded the islands it claims as the Malvi- nas in 1982, ended after a brief but intense engagement with the United Kingdom. Roughly 20,000 land mines have not been accounted for, burned-out helicopters mar the landscape, and the Royal Air Force still has an active airfield on East Falkland. But for all the conflict—and despite extensive sheep farming—the islands appear surprisingly utopian. From the nutrient-rich ocean waters to the rain-sprinkled mountains, I’ve rarely encountered such an intact eco- system in almost three decades as a photographer. Steeple Jason and neighboring Grand Jason, two is- lands untouched by war, might be the greatest Falklands success stories. Sheep and cattle grazed relentlessly on the otherwise uninhabited islands for nearly a cen- tury before a British bird lover acquired them in 1970. He turned the islands into a private sanctuary, and the vegetation began to recover. In the 1990s, New York hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt bought the is- lands, and in 2001 he and his wife, Judy, donated them to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns and Story and Photographs by Paul Nicklen n Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helped pay for photography for this feature.