Penguins! Who doesn’t love the stout little waddlers permanently clad in their finest tuxedos? They’re adorable! Curious creatures they are, and loud, boisterous and stinky too. They’re also loyal, territorial, doting, amusing, and the list goes on.
If you’d like to see penguins in the wild – and who wouldn’t – there are many places around the world where you can. But if you’re headed to South America, there’s no better place to see them than southern Patagonia. You may very well see some stray penguins hiking around on your own in Tierra del Fuego National Park, or with a tour out of Punta Arenas, Chile. But to see a variety of colorful penguin species in one place, the most accessible place to see them in their natural habitat is at the end of the world in Ushuaia (oosh-WHY-ah), Argentina.
My husband and I had been planning a trip to Chile for some time, and since we were going to be in southern Patagonia anyway, what was another 500 miles or so? (Truth be told, I secretly had my heart set on seeing King penguins after reading that a few had recently been spotted there). So we talked ourselves into the 14-hour bus ride from Torres del Paine in Chile to the southernmost city in the world to see them, and off to Argentina we went.
Ushuaia is best known as the jumping off point for travelers headed to the ‘Great White Continent’ of Antarctica, another 4,600 kilometers away. But there’s plenty to see and enjoy in Ushuaia like a lively waterfront, the epic landscape of the Tierra del Fuego National Park, and mouthwatering King Crab, or centolla, fresh from the sea. From the harbor downtown, several tour companies can take you by boat to islands in the Beagle Channel where you’ll see penguins and sea lions. Some boats bring you close enough to the island to view them but you never actually depart the boat. Other more eco-friendly and educational companies offer small group tours that take you onto the islands for a more up close and personal experience, like the one we took to Isla Martillo.
Isla Martillo is also known by its native Yagan name – the indigenous culture of southern Patagonia – as Isla Yecapasela. It’s a fun 15-minute boat ride to its location in the Beagle Channel from Estancia Harberton, one of Argentina’s most famous ranches, or estancias. By regulation, only 80 people per day are allowed to walk through the penguin colony, two groups of 20 in the morning and two groups of 20 in the afternoon.
Walking in the colony is only allowed on designated trails under very specific rules in a limited area, and visitors are always accompanied by a specialized tour guide. You’ll see two species of penguins on Isla Martillo – Magellanic and Gentoo – and possibly (but never guaranteed) colorful King penguins.
After a tour of the beautiful property at Estancia Harberton and its interesting museum, we loaded up our small group and headed to the island. As our boat approached the shoreline, I watched as a very persistent juvenile Gentoo penguin chased his mother around until she delivered her previously-digested meal to him. Round and round they went, diving into the water and shooting back out, diving in again and suddenly popping straight out as if they were shot from a cannon, first mother then baby. In again, out again. As we jumped from the boat onto the island, hundreds of birds greeted us with their chorus of honking and whining…honking, squawking, and whining.
3,000 nesting pairs of Magellanic penguins nest here from September to April, and their numbers are growing each year. The rookery on Isla Martillo consists of thousands of nesting holes and is one of only three Magellanic rookeries in Tierra del Fuego. Along with the penguins, we also saw skua birds – their main predator – along with petrels, cormorants, vultures, and South American terns.
In late March and early April the colony migrates northward to more temperate waters, where they feed at sea for up to six months before returning home to Isla Martillo. The males are the first to arrive back each year to reclaim and prepare their old nests which are burrowed up to two meters deep in the ground. Then the females arrive to find their mate from previous seasons. And all that honking, squawking, and whining we heard were calls to find their partners. Magellanic penguins mate for life and their distinct long hoooonks help them locate each other amidst several thousands of lookalike neighbors.
Between the end of September and early November the females lay two eggs and hatching begins the first week in December. The chicks remain in the nest for about a month, and then finally emerge close to the same size as their parents making them less vulnerable to predation.
In addition to the baby-chasing-Mom antics, there was a small colony of Gentoo penguins on the island with their distinctive orange beaks. It’s the only Gentoo rookery in South America, and they remain here year round. Though their nesting season is similar to that of Magellanic penguins, the nest of a Gentoo penguin is unique to them. Rather than ground burrows, Gentoo nests are built above ground, where generally two eggs are laid in nests made up of stones, grass, and feathers.
As we scanned over the hundreds of black and white and brown Magellanics my eye caught a glimpse of orange and yellow near the opposite shoreline, where we saw just a few King penguins. Our guide was quick to explain their appearance here was unusual and likely temporary or just for the summer, so we were especially excited to have seen them. King penguins are native to Antarctica and their colorful orange and yellow plumes resemble their more famous relative, the Emperor penguin. Ushuaia is not their usual eco-niche and they’re not seen here in any great numbers.
A group of penguins floating in water is referred to as a raft. On land, they’re a colony or waddle, which is in fact an appropriate term. As we walked around the designated pathways and stopped for a closer look at them, several Magellanic penguins waddled up to me roly-poly style, craning their heads more than 90 degrees as if to look upward at me with one squinted eye. They seemed as curious about me as I was about them, though I’m sure they were simply protecting their nests from this tall, camera-wielding beast. Despite their oh-so-adorable outward appearance, I have no doubt they can be highly territorial and protect their mates and nests from the fiercest of predators.
Penguins are classified as a threatened species in South America for several reasons. Antarctic oil spills kill nearly 45,000 adults and juveniles each year. Worse, the severe effects of climate change have also greatly influenced penguin behavior and survivability due to the drastic reduction or displacement of the fish populations on which they feed. Dwindling numbers of fish mean they must swim farther and farther away to find sufficient food, ultimately reproduce, and ensure food for their offspring. To be able to see these creatures in their natural environment was an incredibly special experience for me but also a good reminder of the responsibility we humans bear for protecting their environment – our environment – and ultimate survival.
Looking back, the 14-hour scenic bus ride to get to Ushuaia was nothing. With so much environmental change going on particularly around our polar ice caps, sightings like these may be soon be a thing of the past. And that thought alone is worth the trip to get here.