South American Sea Lion
Visitors to Ushuaia and the Falklands should look out for these iconic creatures
What you need to know about the South American Sea Lion
Our Expert Says… "These really are impressively large creatures! There's a sea lion colony close to the docks in Ushuaia, and that's a great trip to make before embarking on your Antarctic cruise or on your return. Visiting the breeding colonies on the Falklands is a definite highlight of your visit there."
South American Sea Lions are also sometimes known as Patagonian Sea Lions or simply the Southern Sea Lion. Some Spanish-speaking areas refer to them as lobo marino - Sea Wolf.
These sea lions have a large range and can be found on South American coasts from southern Ecuador on the Pacific, all the way around to Southern Brazil on the Atlantic coast. The two places you are most likely to have a close encounter on your Antarctic expedition cruise are in the waters of the Beagle Channel and shore around Ushuaia in Argentina and in the Falkland Islands.
There are thought to be over a quarter of a million South American Sea Lions, but their habits away from their breeding colonies are relatively unknown. The overall population seems stable, but numbers in the Falklands and on the Patagonian coasts are reducing.
Their diet consists mainly of fish, but they will also take squid and octopus. Southern Sea Lions have been seen preying on penguins, and also taking young South American Fur Seal pups. In terms of their own predation, they are only attacked by orcas and by sharks.
Adult male South American Sea Lions can grow to over 2.7m (9ft) long and weigh over 340kg (750lb). They develop the largest mane of all the sea lion species, making them the most “lion-like”. Females are much smaller, growing to around 1.8m (6ft) in length and weighing at most half as much as the males.
Sea Lions gather between December and February to give birth and then to mate. January is the peak time to observe sea lion breeding behavior. Sea lion males will fight for territory on beaches and to keep a harem of females. Unsuccessful males will sometimes group together to try and raid the harem of dominant males causing a huge disturbance on the breeding beaches and sometimes separating pups from mothers. If you are visiting the region in peak sea lion breeding season your naturalist guides may well land you in different areas of the beach from usual, or avoid some active colonies altogether.
South American Sea Lion: Pictures from our travelers
Spots where the South American Sea Lion can be observed
This 150-mile long channel between Chile and Argentina leads from Ushuaia towards the open Southern Ocean.
It's only 3 miles wide at its narrowest point, giving you some spectacular scenery as your ship navigates its way to or from the ocean. You can spot rare local dolphins here, as well as a huge variety of sea and shorebirds.
Bleaker Island (known as Isla Maria in Spanish) has had at least 3 changes of the name since the Falkland Islands were first discovered and colonized.
It was first named Long Island - a rather unimaginative title because that’s what it is, long and thin. Its name was changed to Breaker Island and it appeared like this on maps and charts until 1859, when a new chart was published with the name changed to Bleaker. What was probably a printing error has stuck ever since!
There was evidence that sealers had been using Bleaker Island as a base, but there was no permanent settlement attempted until 1880 when a house was built and a sheep farm set up. The island has been used for rearing ship ever since, and now has some cattle as well. It’s run as an organic farm and tourist destination, with stewardship of the land to allow both commercial farming and wildlife preservation at its heart.
A formally-designated Important Bird Area (or IBA), Bleaker Island is home to a large breeding colony of Imperial Cormorants more than 16,000 strong. Other species to be found here include Gentoo penguins who nest on the appropriately-named Penguin Hill above Sandy Bay. There are also Southern Rockhopper penguins to be found near Long Gulch and Magellanic penguin burrows are widespread.
There are also many smaller bird species here, including Falklands grass wrens and pipits, black-chinned siskins, and dark-faced ground-tyrants. There are also some birds of prey including southern caracaras.
Bull Point is the most southerly point of either of the two main Falkland Islands. Sitting in the far south of East Falkland island, the point forms part of the western shore of the Bay of Harbours.
Most of Bull Point is used by North Ant Farm and actively grazed but its important flora and fauna led to it being declared an Important Bird Area (IBA). The tip of the point has been fenced off completely to allow a natural habitat to recover.
Surveys have revealed over 100 different plant species at the Point, more than half of which are considered to be rare. A particularly important species is Dusen’s Moonwort - only known to occur in two other places in the Falklands apart from Bull Point and nowhere else.
The rocky shore here protects kelp beds, and the sandy beaches are often visited by southern elephant seals and southern sea lions. There are also nesting sites for Gentoo and Magellanic penguins, as well as breeding colonies of ruddy-headed geese and Falkland steamer ducks.
Cape Horn (known as Cabo de Hornos in Spanish) is the southernmost point of South America. It’s not technically part of the mainland, as it is the Tierra del Fuego archipelago’s most southerly headland.
Before the Panama Canal opened, it was the route used by shipping to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and its waters have a reputation for being treacherous. Thanks to the fierce currents, huge waves, strong winds, and frequent icebergs, Cape Horn is still a challenge to navigate and is seen as a “bucket list” passage for many yachtsmen.
It is also amazing for a wide range of seabirds, and marine mammals. Do look out for the Dusky Dolphin as well as the more regularly encountered Peale's Dolphin.
If your cruise vessel “rounds the Horn” then you can join the privileged ranks of those who have sailed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans off the southernmost tip of South America!
New Island - also known as Isla de Goicoechea in Spanish - is one of the Falkland Islands. A long, thin island with both steep cliffs and sandy bays, it’s 150 west of the Falkland’s capital, Stanley.
Despite its position on the westerly edge of the islands, New Island was one of the first to be visited and colonized. There is some evidence that whalers from America may have landed here as early as 1770. In 1813 a ship from Nantucket was wrecked here and the crew survived for two years before being rescued. They built a simple stone shelter which now forms part of the oldest building in the Falklands.
With stints as a base for guano miners and whaling companies, New Island proved to be uneconomical to exploit in these ways and was left for the wildlife to thrive. Now a wildlife reserve and registered Important Bird Area (IBA), New Island is a beautiful sanctuary for many Falklands and Antarctic species to breed and live.
Penguins, in particular, take advantage of the shallow beaches and rolling shores on the eastern coast. Five species can be seen here, including large breeding colonies of gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins. King penguins are also found here, as well as petrels, shags, dolphin gulls, Falklands skuas, and many more, with around 41 species breeding.
Sea lions and elephant seals can also be found hauled up on the beaches or swimming idly in the sheltered bays.
Puerto Madryn, in the northern part of Patagonia, is a whale-watching hotspot. This city of 100,000 people is protected from the pounding South Atlantic by the Golfo Nuevo. It grew from a tiny settlement built by Welsh immigrants in 1865, who gave it its Welsh name of Porth Madryn.
This is a cheerful, bustling city with plenty of modern facilities for shopping, dining, and pleasure-seeking. But the true star of the show is the Golfo Nuevo and the creatures that make its waters and shores their home. This makes Puerto Madryn the perfect place to explore the area.
The whole Valdes Peninsula supports an abundance of wildlife. From elephant seals, sea lions, and penguins, to whales and dolphins, and innumerable seabirds, the region teems with wonders.
After a day of wildlife watching, what better way to recharge than with a superb local steak or some delicious seafood in one of Puerto Madryn’s many great restaurants?
Saunders Island (known in Spanish as Isla Trinidad) is in the northwest of the Falkland Islands group and is the 4th largest individual island with 50 square miles of land.
Saunders Island is geographically stunning, as well as rich with remarkable wildlife. The island is made up of three peninsulas that are joined by narrow necks of land. The three uplands towner over the necks, with the tallest, Mount Richards, being 1,500ft above the waves below. The views from the headlands are astonishing.
Saunders Island has been designated an Important Bird Area (or IBA) thanks to the large numbers of breeding species that make their homes here. The beaches and cliffs are home to four species of penguin with thousands of Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic, King penguins - you can’t avoid hearing their raucous cries from all over the island! There also tend to be a few Macaroni Penguins and if you are lucky to see then you will have had a five penguin species day!
Other significant species to be found on Saunders include Falkland Steamer Duck, King Shag, Black-browed Albatross, the Striated Caracara (can be very inquisitive), Turkey Vulture, and a range of shorebirds, like the Magellanic Oystercatcher, to terrestrial birds from land birds from Dark-faced Ground Tyrants to the white-bridled finch. There are rats on the island so you do not tend to see the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird.
In the waters off the sandy shoreline, you can see the delightful Commerson’s dolphins - their black and white markings making them seem like miniature orcas - and even South American Sea Lions. Visiting Elephant Point will bring you face-to-face with the small colony of elephant seals that live here and gave their name to the beach. At the right time of year, if you are lucky, you might find southern right whales in the sheltered bays here feeding and resting before moving on.
The Falkland Islands
The Falkland Islands (known in Argentina as Islas Malvinas) is an archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Most people may be familiar with them because of the conflict that was fought here by armed forces from Argentina and the UK in 1982, but there is so much more to the Falklands.
Inhabited since 1764, these remote islands have been colonized and claimed by many countries - France and Spain have claimed them (and Argentina since its formation and former Spanish colony) although it’s the British descendants who make up the majority of the islands’ 4,000 population. As a British Overseas Territory, the Falklands are self-governing, but the UK is responsible for defense and foreign affairs. Argentina still disputes the sovereignty of the islands they call the Malvinas.
Made up of two large islands (East and West Falkland) and over 700 smaller islands and islets, the Falklands are as beautiful as they are rugged and remote. Despite its history as a base for South Atlantic whalers and sealers, and more recently extensive sheep farming, the Falkland Islands have retained great biodiversity, and modern conservation has ensured many previously struggling wild species are now returning.
The Falklands is home to important populations of albatross, having some of the largest breeding sites in the world. They are also home to the rare striated caracara, 63 species of nesting land bird, and 5 penguin species. Seals, whales, dolphins, and other marine life are also abundant. Finally, the rugged landscape itself has a stark beauty, and the islanders, although hardy, offer everyone the warmest of welcomes, usually accompanied by a hearty Falklands Tea.
Fishing and farming account for the vast majority of the Falklands Islands income, although tourism is increasingly important. Many of the farms on the islands are now managed with wildlife conservation in mind, and the Falklands is a wildlife management success story.
Although most ships visit Stanley (usually for a day), the main focus on 'expedition' cruises are the outer islands with all the wildlife, and some of the special breeding birds like Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins and some Patagonia specialists like the Striated Caracara. Also bear in mind, with cruises that also go to South Georgia and the peninsula, only 2 or 3 days are normally spent in the Falklands, although some cruises spend longer here.
Weddell Island claims to be the largest privately owned island in the world, at over 102 square miles. It’s also the third largest of all the Falkland Islands, and the largest of the outer islands. It was named after British explorer James Weddell, after whom the Weddell Sea in Antarctica was also named.
Weddell Island was historically run as a farm, but farming activity declined in the 20th century. Recent owners have begun to return the island to sustainable farming as well as managing the habitats for wildlife and replanting native tussac grasses where birds in particular love to nest.
As well as a range of birds and marine mammals typical of the Falklands, and, one interesting creature to be seen here is the tiny Patagonian Grey Fox. Distinctly not a native species, these foxes were introduced to the island in the 1930s by an eccentric previous owner who also brought with him skunks, rheas, and parrots! Only the foxes remain, and although they do prey on very young lambs, their future on the island has still not been decided.
Weddell Island is a very important plant habitat for the Falklands. It contains more than 60% of all the native Falkland plant species, including some very rare species. The birdlife here is also prolific and plays host to most of the Falklands species as well as some occasional visitors from South America. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins are resident, and another 54 species have so far been recorded on Weddell.
The whole island is open for exploration, and you are welcome to either stay close to the small settlement to enjoy the views or to hike across the island in the hope of spotting some of its rarer bird species.
Well-named West Point Island is one of the furthest points in the northwest of the Falklands archipelago. Known originally as Albatross Island (and Isla Remolinos in Spanish), this 5.5 square miles of grassy rock has some of the most stunning scenery to be found in the islands.
West Point is a working sheep farm and is owned by the Napier family, who will warmly welcome you to their home, and it is a very popular site to visit. As its original name implies, you can walk ross the island to be be welcomed by the calls and shrieks from the huge colony of black-browed albatross that live here. In fact, more than two-thirds of the world’s entire albatross population breed here in the Falklands!
You are able to follow a path through the tussock grass right next to the colony that is actually a mixture of Black-browed Albatross and Southern Rockhopper Penguins, the penguins nesting between the raised nests of the albatross colony. It is a superb location to observe these two iconic Falklands species up close.
Magellanic Penguin also breed nearby and other notable bird species include Striated Caracaras, Cobb's Wrens, Blackish Cinclodes, and White-bridled finches. In fact, there are so many important species here that West Point Island has been formally listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA).
The other thing you’ll get on West Point is fantastic Napier hospitality! Your group will be welcomed with traditional tea, cake, and biscuits as well as an invitation to walk around the island gardens.