March of the penguins

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ARGENTINA

MARTILLO ISLAND

March 2014 • Canon 60D camera


On a very cold, windy, wet and grey afternoon we jumped on board a massive 4x4 truck that would take us to the famous Penguin island. It was raining hard so there was nothing to see out the windows. The drive from Ushuaia harbor to the Estancia Harberton was around 1.5 hrs. I had a nice nap in the 4x4 as it was very humid inside. Estancia Harberton is is the oldest estancia (farm) and declared a National Historical Monument. The Acatushun Museum was located here. We walked around a large room showing marine fossils and skeletons of wildlife in the area. Small variety of fishes to large whales, dolphins and sharks. Outside you could hear the wind howl and the heavy rain hit against the window and walls.

After an hour in the museum we then headed to a semi-rigid speed boat for a 20 minute ride to Martillo island to see the penguins. Thankfully the boat had a roof and we all dashed under it. I opted to stay at the end so I could peek out and take photos. The rain was was not as heavy as it was earlier but it was still very windy. The combination of the strong winds and rain made the boat journey to the island seem like a dangerous adventure. The boat was bouncing up and down on the choppy Beagle channel. Several people on the boat had concerned faces. They probably had not been on such rough seas before. The scenery of the surrounding mountains from the boat look magical in the background of cloudy skies. A wonderful haze of light appearing from behind the mountains made the whole silhouette of the mountains look mystical and dramatic.


Once out of the boat we were met with icy cold winds and rain. We were in a region close to Antarctica so I can imagine how much colder it could be there. On the shore we were greeted by hundreds of penguins. They were going about there business not minding us walking along a fixed path from the penguins. We had to keep quiet while walking so not to disturb the penguins.

Everyone struggled to take photos in the bad weather. Our tour guide tried his best to explain the island and the different penguins in the howling wind. Gentoo and Magellanic penguins habitat this island with the later being the majority. We were also lucky enough to witness 2 king penguins which are rare on this island. Other habitats include skúa birds, petrels, cormorants, vultures and South American terns.


Did you know...

As of 2009, the island has a colony of 3000 pairs of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus). Also you can find 16 pairs of gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua), the only rookery in continental Argentina, and 155 pairs of rock cormorants (Phalacrocorax magellanicus) nest on the cliffs to the south.
— Source





Magellanic penguins

(Spheniscus magellanicus)

Magellanic penguins have black backs and white abdomens. They have a distinctive black, horseshoe shaped stripe on their front and a thick black stripe that runs under their chin. They range between 70 and 76 cms (28–30 inches) in height and they weigh between 4 and 6 kgs (8.8 and 13 lbs).

They are also known to be excellent swimmers. Unfortunately they are currently classified as Near threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to overall moderately rapid declines in populations.


Gentoo penguins

(Pygoscelis papua)

Gentoo penguins is easily recognized by it's bright orange bill and feet with a white stripe across the top of its head. Reaching a height of between 75 and 90 cms (30–36 inches) and they weigh between 5.5 and 8.5 Kgs (12–18.8 lbs).

They are currently classified as Near threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to a rapid decline in some key populations.


King penguins

(Aptenodytes patagonicus)

King penguins are the second largest species of penguin, the emperor penguin being the largest. These penguins have grey or black on their backs and white on their front. They have yellow/orange markings on each side of their head and the lower half of their beak. They are around 90 cms (35 inches) in height and they weigh between 11 and 16 kgs (24–35 lbs).

Currently classified as Least Concenrned (LC) on the IUCN Red List


After an hour of walking around we hurriedly made our back the boat and to the farm. There we warmed up inside a small building where you can buy tea and cake.

On the way home we briefly stopped to take pictures of some hauntingly trees stuck in a permanent pose of being blown by the wind.


Final thoughts

Bring warm and wind proof layered clothes! If you are lucky to get good weather you can always layer off. Walking close to these little guys in black and white suits is an exciting experience. Despite the bad weather it was great to see the animals in their natural habitat and not stuck in a zoo. If you happen to be concerned about going on this tour for fear of disturbing the penguin's environment, you should know that the path you take is strictly enforced by the guides so to protect the penguins.

Pira tours are the only company that have permission to operate a tour on the island. There are two departures daily from 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Spaces are limited. Due to the exclusivity of this tour it is highly recommended to book in advance, especially during peak season (December to February). For more information and prices visit the company website.


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