Cruise ships are not my favorite mode of travel, but – so I realize again on my way to the Falkland Islands – they do have two positive qualities.
One, they allow – in fact they encourage – solitude. Being in a cabin, with no company but the sea and sky outside, is a realm for the idlest kind of dreaming. Also, cruises open up wild, lost, lonely coasts, take you into places airplanes really can’t be bothered with. If travel is about discovery, the angle from a ship’s deck provides, for landlubbers, a fresh viewpoint on the planet.
When I wake up to the Falkland Islands, these two qualities combine. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov – an ice-strengthened Russian vessel built as a spy ship at the end of the Cold War but refitted for tourism and scientific research – is closing in on Carcass Island off West Falkland. The night crossing from Ushuaia has seemed long.
After we left the Magellan Strait the sea became choppy but now is dead calm. A warm, green bay appears with the dawn and embraces us. The stillness is exhilarating. This must be one of the cleanest, clearest skies in the world, and I can see far to the horizon, layers upon layers of smooth, low hills, and wisps of lenticular cloud. The passengers, still mellowed by sleep, move around slowly and silently.
After breakfast, the activities begin. We hop into inflatables to take a walk on white-sand beaches among teeming populations of gentoo penguins. Out in the rolling surf bob flightless Falkland steamer ducks. Even keeping a respectful distance, I feel myself to be in the thick of things; the gentoos see so few visitors that they show little fear of humans.
I lie down beside a patch of tussock grass, put down my camera and watch the toing and froing, the chatting and mating, the swimming and the shaking off. The shiny feathers of the gentoos – black with white chests – are startlingly defined, glowing against the backdrop of a greenish, roiling ocean that creates its own haze of spray. They look placid and cute, tempting the usual anthropomorphisms: cheeky waiters, Charlie Chaplin.
After a while, it is time to go back to the ship, leaving the gentoos in their gorgeous isolation. There is a grey sky now and a soft light all around – and I think, momentarily, of England.