Episode 190 – Los Pingüinos!! Penguins !!

February 7, 2022. Temp 61°F/16°C

#myvikingstory

Today we arrived under cloudy skies and light rain at the capital city of Chile’s southernmost region.

Punta Arenas, Chile (not to be confused with Puntarenas, Costa Rica, but both meaning “sandy point”) is the largest city south of the 46th parallel and, due to its location, the coldest coastal city in Latin America with more than 100,000 inhabitants. It’s only 880 miles from the coast of Antarctica!

The city, as seen from the harbour, looks quite modern. It was originally established as a penal colony, but later settled by Croatians, Germans, English, and Italians looking to take advantage of mineral deposits and its strategic location as a port.

Since 2017, the city and its region have had their own time zone; they use summer time during the whole year (UTC−3), but as Ted so often says now that we’re retired: “time is meaningless”. We don’t need to change our clocks, at any rate.

The climate is considered sub-polar oceanic bordering on tundra. Temperatures are moderated by the ocean, with average lows in July (the middle of winter, remember) near −1°C/30°F and highs in January (midsummer) of 14°C/57°F.

For us Canadians, that range translates to year-round “spring”.

There were lots of fascinating excursions offered here that highlighted the city’s history, but Ted and I have never seen penguins in the wild before, so for us there was only one “real” option.

We took the 5 hour afternoon excursion, ferried by catamaran for about 90 minutes across notoriously bumpy water (a 2-gravol proactive dose trip, only to end up with calm waters – oh well) to the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument on Magdalena Island.

This tiny island located in the middle of the Strait of Magellan is one of the world’s major nesting places for Magellanic penguins. There are apparently more than 120,000 of the cute little guys here! It would be virtually impossible to visit Magdalena Island and not see penguins.

They’re everywhere!

Magellan reportedly stated in one of his exploration logs that he had found an island with many birds that could not fly, but were good to eat, although the meat was a bit salty. No wonder, since penguins are able to internally desalinate ocean water, and spit out the salt!

Today, as a protected area, there are lots of rules for visitors, and NO ONE is eating the penguins. In addition to the rules posted, our guides stressed: “No hugging the penguins. No patting the penguins. No picking up of the penguins. No taking penguins home in your backpack. We WILL check.”

Note the “no umbrellas” rule. Do you suppose that was suggested by Batman in order to prevent these penguins from turning into supervillains?

Magellanic penguins. Less than 3 feet tall. Weighing under 10 lbs. Mostly monogamous. Fiercely protective. Darn cute.

CUTE. CUTE. CUTE.
American Gothic, penguin style.
How long do you suppose these two have been a couple?
Some have attitude. This could be a moody teenager.

Our guide told us that Magellanic penguins normally have a life span of 18 -20 years, but penguins on this island, with optimal food and climate conditions, have been recorded living to as old as 24 years.

Penguins in various stages of moult (below). Chicks lose their soft “fur”. Young adults eventually lose their neck ruff. Adults use oil from a gland near their tail to waterproof their feathers.

Moulting for adults is a long process, taking place after their chicks have headed out on their own, during which penguins are not waterproof, so they prepare themselves by gorging on food, increasing their body weight by up to 50%. When they return to land, bloated and heavy, they often fall over and just roll!

Resting. Too full to move right now.
Not a penguin. There are almost as many Kelp Gulls on the island as there are Magellanic penguins.

The penguins’ breeding season here is from September to April. The males arrive on the island first, to clear winter debris out of their nests and re-line them with grass and pebbles. Then the females arrive and reconnect with their mates. After a pregnancy lasting just 3 days, 2 eggs are laid, 4 days apart, which are incubated in turns by both parents in shifts for 40-42 days, at which point the eggs hatch. Then come another 90 days of intensive feeding and protecting the chicks until they fledge and are able to head out on their own. Usually only one of the two chicks survives (the one who is best at getting fed), but here in the ideal atmosphere of Magdalena Island, it is fairly common for both chicks to live.

From top: Mom and Dad; guarding the nest; feeding Junior; an alert chick.

Parents take turns guarding their nest. If one parent dies – caught perhaps during a food run by a sea lion from neighbouring Marta Island – the other must fend for themselves, which can put unsupervised chicks at risk.

There’s more than one way to guard a nest:
glowering fiercely, or sentinel duty.

Chilean skua birds will eat seagull chicks and eggs, and unprotected penguin chicks and eggs, but they don’t stand a chance in a fight against an adult Magellanic penguin, as the many carcasses on the island attest.

Chilean skua.
The adult penguins can be quite vocal. They tip their heads back, pump their chests in and out, and issue a repetitive call that is almost a honk (or maybe a donkey braying)
Penguin crossing.
On Magdalena Island penguins ALWAYS have the right-of-way.
Our visit to the penguins could have gone on longer, but these two seemed to be saying “We’re going to bed now. Turn the lights out when you leave.”

What a terrific excursion. It lived up to its promise and more.

20 comments

  1. Looks like a wonderful excursion! I believe the catamaran might be the best choice for getting to the island. The ferry is so slow but yet the speed boat we took three years ago was over crowded (my husband didn’t even get a seat) and extremely bumpy (lots of sea sick folks.)

    Besides Magdalena Island, we also had a chance to see many Magellanic penguins in Puerto Madryn in Argentina. It was near 100ºF that day and the poor penguins were panting in the hot sun.

    I am looking forward to seeing how you spend your day in Ushuaia!

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  2. We took this excursion three years ago and loved it. However, the best place to see penguins was in Antarctica. Seeing penguins riding on small ice flows right next to the ship and sliding down into the water was very entertaining. Watching the penguins swimming was also a treat. Our Holland ship did not have tours ashore but we got very close to shore to see and smell the large penguin colonies. Antarctica would be amazing on the new Viking expeditions ships.

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  3. Oooooo…. So very glad you got to see them! And there were so many! I really can’t believe you actually got to walk among them and get so close. That’s quite a highlight for this trip! What a fun day you had. And thanks for satisfying my curiosity – I’ve been dying to see this post and hear about these sweet little creatures!!!!

    Question: When they arrive in September, where are they arriving from?

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  4. 3-day pregnancy? What an improvement over human pregnancy.

    But I suppose there’s a trade-off of nest-sitting + intensive feeding.

    Thanks for the info and photos!

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  5. Thanks for sharing your wonderful pictures and commentary! Your excursion was much better than the one we took in March, 2020 where we saw 20? “Leftover” penguins from verrry far away! This, along with your scenic cruising (“Iced”) have been two of my favorite episodes. Just love the nature and wildlife excursions!

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