Penguin Extravaganza (Oct 10)

Postscript to yesterday’s entry: the ship’s navigation map went at auction for $400 to a very determined elderly Australian lady. She started the bidding at $200 and the room went silent for about five minutes as every other potential bidder cowered under their respective chairs. Finally, after repeated pleading by the auctioneer one brave Chilean gent tentatively hazarded $220, at which point the Aussie iron lady leapfrogged her own bid all the way to $400, and that was that.

“Marvin, is that you?”

Today is our last day aboard ship, heading into port at Punta Arenas. This morning was our visit to Magdalena Island, a gently sloped windswept rock occupied by a small lighthouse, a carpet of short dry grass and sand, and about 8 billion Magellan penguins, or so it seemed. The things were literally underfoot so the cuteness quotient was astronomical. It is moreover mating season so we saw them in various courtship displays, nest building, burrow digging, and what appeared to be the occasional lover’s quarrel that involves much pecking and one of the parties (hard to tell which one) storming off:

Her: “You call that pathetic pile of dried grass and stones a nest? How are we supposed to raise a family here?” 

Him: “Hey, gimme a break! That is top quality dried grass!” 

Her: “I don’t care! The Goldbergs have kelp!”

And so on. She then goes on to say that she should have married Marvin like mother wanted, and it turns out that he is Marvin and she never realized it because they all look alike. In any case, here’s the crowd on the beach (above right).

16″ tall and 9 lbs of domesticity

And here is Marvin, at left. Or at least, I assume so. There is in fact no easy way to differentiate male and female penguins unless you are either an ornithologist working up close, or another penguin.

I should mention the sounds of the island. First and foremost, as you might guess, is howling wind. But competing with that sound for attention was the vocalizations of the tuxedoed sea of penguins: they hoot, they squawk, and — in a bit of déjà vu for us — they bray. Almost exactly a year ago we saw the Boulders penguins of Cape Town, South Africa, which for good reason are informally called “jackass penguins”. Much like them, the Magellan penguins make a loud and unmistakeable HEE HAW, pointing their beaks straight up to the sky, swelling their throats, and letting loose.

The island, like most of Tierra del Fuego, has a fragile ecology. To protect it, i.e. to avoid an Exxon Valdez kind of disaster and countless petroleum-covered penguins, the Chilean government forbids tanker ships from using the Strait of Magellan. They have to sail to the southwest in the open Pacific, where weather conditions are even harsher.

We stayed on the island for an hour or so, exposing every uncovered inch of ourselves to the gale-force freezing wind. The Zodiac ride both to and from the Australis was choppy and wet, and based on that experience we are both able to testify from personal experience that the Strait of Magellen is filled with very salty water.

This having been a sunrise excursion, we were back on the ship by about 8:30 AM and enjoying the very good breakfast buffet just a few minutes after that. The Australis weighed anchor while we were eating, and we docked in Punta Arenas about two hours later, bringing the sea leg of our trip to a close.

“OK guys, the tourists are gone now. Back to the poker game.”

(By the way, that out-of-focus gnat-like cloud seemingly surrounding the penguin’s head in this photo is in fact an enormous flock of seagulls hanging around the ship in the distance. We picked them up an hour or two before our arrival at Magdalene Island.)

We cleared customs in Punta Arenas — remember that we boarded ship in Ushuaia, Argentina and are now re-entering Chile — and boarded a bus for a brief city tour before lunch. Punta Arenas is Julio’s home town, though his job as a tour lead does not give him much time at home. He introduced us to our local guide who, remarkably, turned out to be his father!

Punta Arenas is an attractive medium-sized town with a population of about 180,000. It has a small, pleasant central square surrounded by wind-twisted trees, and whose main feature is a statue commemorating Magellan. Many of the buildings are quite elaborate, colonial-style mansions that were once private residences of the wealthy but are now mostly government buildings and museums. Its glory days are somewhat past; up until about 1960 the region was dominated by a small number of robber-baron-type families, notably the Menendez family that at its peak owned fully 10% of the land in Patagonia. But the real slide began well before then, with the completion of the Panama Canal. Up till then, of course, every cargo and passenger ship moving between the east and west coasts of North America had to go around Cape Horn, and Punta Arenas was a major stopover point on that route. When the canal opened, Punta Arenas’ raison d’être pretty much evaporated.

But the port town still has its wind, and lots of it. Already situated in a place that pretty much guarantees a permanent hurricane, the effect is amplified by the existence of the town itself, whose buildings deflect and focus the wind down the streets. Walking down the street is like taking a stroll behind a jet engine, and we saw a few street corners where the authorities have strung rope along the sidewalks for the purpose of giving pedestrians something to hold onto lest they get blown into traffic as they walk. (Yes, really.)

Our bus took us to a rustic-looking but actually modern and comfortable asador (wood-smoked barbecue) restaurant located next to a small horse farm at the edge of town. Lunch was an excellent mixed grill of chorizo, chicken, all cooked over a wood fire in the same room in which we ate. 

We hit the road at about 3 PM (meals are a leisurely affair here) for the two and a half hour drive to our hotel. The terrain is flat and mostly empty — we are in the pampas now — but giving way to rolling hills in the distance. There are few people; this part of the country has an average population density of fewer than 5 people per square mile. The ground cover is yellowish grass, low bushes, and very small trees. This vegetation is of poor nutritional value, hard to digest because of a high silica content, but nonetheless hosts an interesting variety of life. Within the first hour of the bus ride we saw a flock of sheep and, far more interestingly, a flock of Chilean flamingos like the ones we saw in Atacama; a caracara, which is a puffin-like raptor about 16″ tall; and several rheas, which are very large brown emu-like flightless birds about two-thirds the height of an ostrich.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Penguin Extravaganza (Oct 10)

  1. Richard Sikorski

    Curious if you had and king crab, abalone, or sea urchin while in Punta Arenas? I don’t know if the availability of crab or abalone is seasonal, but the urchin definitely has a tasty “tourist” season and a very gamey “local-only” season.

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