Magdalena Island is a two-hour ferry ride from Punta Arenas, the southern-most town in Chile. We took the ferry two hours out and two hours back in order to have one hour on the island looking at Magellanic Penguins. We were sure that an hour would be more than enough. On our way back, we agreed it would have been nice to have had more time.
The fellows in these pictures are Magellanic Penguins. Later in the trip, we would see Gentoo and Adele Penguins and perhaps a Chinstrap. There are 323 species of seabirds. We had a professional birder on board who helped people identify what they were seeing. Each day, a list of the birds and animals seen the day before would be available.
I chatted with the lecturer on birds. He was a very nice guy, and I was surprised to learn he had retired as a London policeman. After retirement, he managed a wildlife preserve in southern England, and is now writing a book on the subject.
It was interesting to hear how many variety of penguins and albatrosses there were. The Northern Royal Albatross has a ten and a half foot wing span. The Sooty Shearwater is a diving petrel that can
dive sixty-seven meters under the water. Many penguins can dive nearly as far or further. But to tell the truth, I was simply excited to see an albatross soaring outside the dining room window as we ate dinner even if I couldn’t say what kind of albatross he was (assuming it was a he). I was happy to see penguins, even if we didn’t see the largest or every kind. (But I was sorry we missed the Rockhoppers. They have tufts out the sides of their heads rather like a Red Skelton character.)
Magdelana Island has an estimated seventy-five thousand mating pairs. With chicks, the population must be over two-hundred thousand birds. The birds burrow into the ground. Others like the Gentoo nest on top of rocks, and we even saw them climb high on steep hillsides in Antarctica.
The young penguins were covered with down. But until they lose the water-absorbent down, they can’t go into the water. So mama and papa take turns waddling down to the water to catch and bring home the meals. When the adult gets back, they turn their heads skyward and honk. The kids come racing up to be fed and jam their beaks into their parent’s beak and throat.
Magdalena Island is a national park with a carefully roped off pathway up the hill to a lighthouse. We were instructed to give penguins the right-of-way if they crossed the pathway on their way too or from the sea. Were we to block
them, we would be blocking some little chick’s meal.
We have seen SeaWorld and zoo penguins, but we have never been so close or among so many. As we walked, we looked into their burrows. We watched them waddle. We watched parents herd their young, usually only one or two per nest. We watched an occasional parent pluck down from a chick — you could almost hear them say, “now hold still a moment.” We watched them go out to sea. We took photographs and more photographs. We never made it up to the lighthouse.
After our tour, we went into the Punta Arenas city square. A statute of Magellan who came to the area in 1520 is in the center. The city boomed with the discovery of gold in California as countless prospectors and adventurers “rounded the Horn.” It then faded with the opening of the Panama Canal. But it was interesting to walk around the town and listen to a bunch of kids drumming out their version of “Stomp.” Alie pretended to kiss the toe of the Indian at Magellan’s feet which is said to be a wish to come back — wishing is one thing; actual kissing is another. Then we found a cab driver who let us practice our Spanish on the way back to the ship, stopped
and illegally backed so we could see the monument to the first settlers. Our Spanish was good enough to tell us the monument was dedicated just before we arrived.
Ushuaia, our destination the next day, is the most southern city in Argentina and the most southern city on the continent. It is also the port for many small cruise ships that take passengers down to Antarctica. In all, large and small, about thirty-five thousand tourists visited the continent last year.
We did not have time, however, to visit the city. We just boarded a bus that took us to Tierra del Fuego National Park for the day.
Tierra del Fuego refers to the entire archipelago including Cape Horn. The name translates as land of fire, and I always assumed it referred to volcanoes. In reality, Magellan and the early Spanish explorers gave it that name because the natives regularly lit fires along the shore. Today, thanks to disease and warfare, very few of the native Yaghan people survive.
The park, created in 1960, is on the largest island next to the border with Chile. The roads are dirt, but in many ways it resembles a national park in the United States. There is a visitor’s center. There are trails and picnic areas. There are campgrounds with fire pits and picnic tables. And there were campers and hikers — it is their summer.
The views across a couple lakes towards Chile were beautiful. Because we were so far south, the treeline on the mountains was only at about eighteen hundred feet, and the mountains rise abruptly from the shorelines, so the rocky peaks looked much higher.
There were many interesting plants and flowers, and we were pleased to see a red fox. We had seen a fox when we were near the Arctic Ocean at the other end of the planet.
Finally, we had to have our pictures taken at the end of the Pan American Highway. The Pan American Highway is a network of roads stretching about thirty thousand miles down the west coast of the Americas from Prudhoe Bay to Tierra del Fuego. We may never traverse the length, but now we can say we were at both ends.