Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chilean Pinguinos

It had not even been a week since my departure from Palmer, and only a day had passed since I disembarked from the Gould, but I had to admit that I already missed being out in a Zodiac, and I missed seeing penguins. So, as my Palmer friends departed Punta Arenas one by one, I decided to book a little tourist trip out to see some Chilean Magellanic Penguins.

Early in the morning, along with an international collection of tourists, I boarded a covered Zodiac that held around 20 people. It was quite a windy day in this part of Chilean Patagonia. Summer winds here can be so strong (often up to 60 knots!) that they will knock you over as you try to walk, and in Punta Arenas some intersections even have chains installed to keep pedestrians from being blown into the streets. And so, the tour guides explained that our boat ride out to Isla Magdalena would be a bit choppy today and they advised the weak of stomach to sit in the rear of the Zodiac. Proud to now be a bit of a boating expert, I gleefully positioned myself in the front, and smiled as the boat smacked against the wind-driven waves.
After a thrilling, butt-bruising ride we arrived at Isla Magdalena, which is part of Los Ping├╝inos Natural Monument. Here a large colony of over 60,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins were breeding. As I stepped off the pier onto the island my first thought was "Wow, they smell so much better than the Adelies!" This is probably not what goes through most people's minds when they first arrive at Isla Madalena but, having never been a smoker, I possess a very sensitive nose and to me the difference in fragrance was striking (and much appreciated)!

The Magellanic Penguins were about the size of the Antarctic Adelies, and their chicks were at approximately the same adolescent stage of development as Torgersen's Adelies had been at the end of my stay at Palmer: molting off their fluffy chick coats and starting to fledge.
Instead of building a nest of stones, the Magellanic Penguins lay their eggs in underground burrows, and the island is literally covered with them.While strolling along the fenced-off pathways that lead around the island, I let the other tourists go on ahead of me, hoping for a chance to record these new penguins. Though I suspected the winds might be too strong for even my mighty Sennheiser windscreen, I pulled out my recording gear and searched for a sheltered place on this barren island where I could set up my microphones. Turns out there was no good wind shelter to be had. I tried to use my body to shield the mics, but those crafty Patagonian winds just wove their way around me. Here's a sample of the best recording I could make in these conditions.
Our next destination was Isla Marta, home to more Magellanic Penguins, cormorants (who nest in the island's cliffs), and a large colony of sea lions. As we approached the island in our boat a raucous din of sea lions groans and howls greeted us. The beach was covered with the squirming brown shapes of hundreds of sea lions and curious heads popped up out of the water next to us.

You are not allowed to land on Isla Marta (it's protected), so we hovered just offshore in our boat for a while: the tourists gawking at the sea lions and the sea lions gawking at the tourists. It must have looked pretty hilarious, as we humans took turns sticking our heads out of the open areas at the bow and the stern of the boat, and the sea lions took turns sticking their heads out of the sea, both species wondering what the other was up to.

And then it was time for the bumpy return to the mainland, followed by a van ride through wind-scoured landscapes and back into the city of Punta Arenas.

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