4,000 Penguins and the End of the Earth

My shoes made a soft squishing noise as I stepped off the paved path and onto a narrow band of muddy earth which wound its way between the road and a small set of kiosks along Ushuaia’s main pier.  The morning was crisp, partly cloudy and smelled fresh.  The air prickled my skin and teased at a refreshing day.  The sky over the Beagle Channel of Darwinian fame was gorgeous and set the perfect backdrop for the day’s adventure.

I’d be using Pira Tours which is somewhat expensive but it is the only group that has rights and access to actually disembark on Martillo Island where the penguin colonies are located. Eager to begin the adventure, I tracked down the 16 person mini-bus that would transport us out to the Harberton Estate where we’d catch a zodiac out to a small island located in the middle of the Beagle Channel.

Countryside - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The drive east along the coast was a beautiful one.  The first 1/3 was on pavement and wound through snow-capped mountains with lush but rugged vegetation on either side of the road.  The trees were green and moss-covered with foliage and moss serving as a dense carpet below.  Despite the lush verdant colors everything maintained a hearty look that hinted at the harshness of winter and the brutal nature of the landscape.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Our first stop – well, more of a pause really – was near the 2/3 mark. We’d wound through rich forest and along the base of tundra-esque valleys before eventually bursting out of the underbrush and returning to the coast. The scenery had been fascinating. I noticed recent work had been done on the road and there were whole stands of trees that had been blown over or literally snapped in half.  I’d later learn that the damage had happened a mere 3 days previous during an incredible micro-burst.  Yikes!

Our first pause was along a stone beach covered in horseshoe muscle shells, urchin bodies and other small, vibrantly colored seashells.  The view looked out over an old fish smoking/drying stand at the Beagle Channel and the Chilean coastline to the south.  The water was clear, fresh, and rich with life. It made for a grand start.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Eager to continue along our way we re-boarded and watched as the forest gave way to open grassy areas, small bogs with gnarly, protruding, sun-bleached branches, and a rugged mixture of hearty trees that stood valiantly with snarled branches and a perpetual tilt as if trying to shrug off the wind.

Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Shortly thereafter we arrived at the Harberton Estate – a fun little cluster of buildings with an old dock, a few animals and several boats. There we were introduced to our guide – a perky gal in her late 20s/early 30s whose face was decorated almost completely by a birthmark.  Her wide smile and a twinkle in her eyes oozed character and hinted that she’d be every bit the spunky guide  a trip out to spend time with penguins demanded. We boarded the hard-bottomed zodiac and let out a collective sigh of relief when we noticed that a plastic wind cabin had been installed to protect us from the cold weather.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The boat ride was fairly quick and smooth.  The water was calm and largely protected from the harsher conditions one might expect. Eventually, we killed the motor and slowly floated in towards a black pebble beach dotted with thousands of tiny white and black feathered bodies.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

One by one we awkwardly slid over the side of the zodiac’s rubber bow and down onto the beach. There we paused and took in the incredible world we’d arrived in.  The island serves as home to a colony of some 4,000 Magellanic Penguins for 6 months of the year and another permanent colony of some 50 Gentoo Penguins who reside there year round.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

I’d opted to use Pira Tours because the island has a cap which only allows around 40 visitors a day.  Based on the advice received at the hostel, Pira Tours is the only group in the region with the rights to disembark passengers onto the island. Standing on the beach I knew my choice had been worthwhile.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we paused and collected ourselves our guide explained the ground rules.  No chasing, feeding or touching the penguins.  Stay within the driftwood outlines which have been laid out. Don’t wander off.  Watch where you step and make sure you don’t collapse a penguin burrow. Easy enough right?

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Our first stop after the main beach was the Gentoo Penguin Colony.   This smaller, permanent colony was located in the middle of the island in a flat space and offered a cluster of small craters built up into nests by the birds.  A smaller and better established colony, the surrounding grass had been ground to dirt. The penguins stood with backs to the wind relaxing and periodically running some small errand or another.  Larger and more colorful than the Magellanic penguins they have a more recognizable look which one might readily identify as a staple of animated films.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we continued to make our way across the island I couldn’t help but pause and relish the view.  At times it struck me as unique.  Others moments I had to pinch myself and remember that I was at the southern-most continental point in the world…not the northern-most.  The landscape could have easily been confused for a bay, mountains and island in the far north and reminded me of my time spent in Alaska above the Arctic Circle.

Penguin Nest on the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Unlike the Gentoos who built their nests above ground, the Magellanic penguins opt to dig small burrows.  The island is covered in small holes, most of which have at least one baby penguin inside.  The babies were adorable, fluffy little creatures that hunkered down in their holes for safety and relaxed under careful parental eyes.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The island’s penguins have two primary predators.  The first are the large hawk-like Skua pictured above with two young hatchlings.  These birds will raid penguin nests for eggs if the opportunity presents itself but don’t offer a significant threat to the birds once hatched.  The other main predators, though far less common on the island, are elephant seals.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The Magellanic penguins are highly social creatures which can be seen in their general behavior.  It was not uncommon to see a couple out strolling along the coast, or through the grass.  I couldn’t help but chuckle and think they looked like human couples out for a stroll while dressed in their winter finery. I’ll admit the mountains, bay, tress and beach made for quite the romantic backdrop.

Penguin Nest Under the Stairs - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we neared the central part of the island, we came upon a small wooden staircase which had been constructed to ease our way up onto a large grass field.  Proving that even in nature some animals are more entrepreneurial than others, several penguins had burrowed out hollow spaces underneath the stairs allowing them well-protected nests.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

The grassy area served as the primary nesting ground for the Magellanic penguins.  They would take advantage of the large clumps of grass and burrow under them, or near them, while using the grass to block the wind, visibility and to reinforce their burrows.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As we walked along the small dirt path it was difficult to avoid recently dug penguin burrows and not uncommon to suddenly become aware of them as they moved mere inches away from your feet.  Overall they were fairly apathetic about our presence and only spent a moment here or there to evaluate us with unblinking eyes before returning to their daily activities.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

From there it was back down to the coast where we paused and watched the few penguins braving the windward side of the island go about their business.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Low and flat, the island is ringed by gnarled driftwood which adds a wild, natural, rugged feel to the environment.  The penguins themselves don’t make much of it, other than winding their way through the bleached wood as a castle’s defender might make his way through bulwarks and small defenses.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Once back on the leeward side of the island, I was once again taken by just how many penguins there were and how different each looked.  As I sat down and silently began to snap photos I noticed that one of the younger Gentoo penguins had ventured down and was intermingling with the Magellanics.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As I sat and enjoyed the tranquility of it all, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been transported to another world.  This was the stuff of movies, of legends and of tall tales.  A rare experience and one I was privileged to enjoy.  I sat and relaxed and soaked in as much as I could.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

…and then I was shaken from musings by the crunch of webbed feet on rocks as my young, colorful friend waddled his way towards me.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Curious, he made a casual circle down towards me, leveraging the slight incline from the hill to accelerate his haphazard waddle.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Then as quickly as he’d begun my way, he switched directions and began to backtrack. If I didn’t know better he was playing the role of a runway model.

Penguin Island in the Beagle Channel - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

He’d pause to stare, and made sure that he was never out of sight. Though on a pebbled beach, that’s not exactly a challenging undertaking.

Penguin with Woman - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Eventually he’d opt to make another quick drive-by.  This time he decided to head down and take a close look at one of the women on the trip.  In truth it was hard to know who was watching whom.  He seemed to derive every bit of the enjoyment watching us, that we found watching him.

Windswept Tree - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

As our hour on the island wound to a close we let out a lament-filled sigh and then re-boarded the boat.  Before long we were back on our bus and well on our way back to Ushuaia, but not before we paused for a few quick photos at the flag tree.  It is one of a series of profoundly stubborn trees that have braved fierce winds and grown to embrace them.  Shaped by the winds, they’ve naturally grown into wild shapes that mirror blown grass.

Sleeping Tree - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

Even those that failed to survive the winds have continued on, adapting to what came their way. In truth, I’d almost say that the tree pictured above has not only survived the wind’s hash thrashing, but embraced it and thrived.

Windswept Trees - Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

From there it was back to Ushuaia where we disembarked and made our way back to our respective hostels and hotels, but not before a few of us paused at a local restaurant for a delicious Bife de Chorizo (Argentinian steak).

Total cost for the tour? 285 Pesos or about 70 USD.  Expensive as far as day tours go, but worth every penny.