February 7, 2022. Temp 61°F/16°C
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!
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.
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.”
Magellanic penguins. Less than 3 feet tall. Weighing under 10 lbs. Mostly monogamous. Fiercely protective. Darn cute.
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!
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.
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.
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.
What a terrific excursion. It lived up to its promise and more.