Purple Peak Adventures | ‘P-p-picture a penguin…’: A journey to Tierra del Fuego, Chile

‘P-p-picture a penguin…’: A journey to Tierra del Fuego, Chile

December 10, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

 

King PenguinsKing PenguinsParque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, is the only King Penguin breeding site outside the Antarctic region

 

Throughout a spell in my childhood they appeared on the TV almost nightly, advertising a chocolate covered biscuit which we were exhorted to ‘p-p-pick up’ when we were a bit ‘p-p-peckish’. I, like millions of other British kids, fell in love with the  king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus), cute, comical-looking birds waddling about as if bedecked in morning suits. I never imagined that I would ever see them in the wild, as they are endemic to the southern hemisphere and inhabit islands tucked away deep in the South Atlantic - the Falklands and South Georgia - and the even more remote and inhospitable Antarctica. Until fairly recently.

In November 2013 Martin and I find ourselves in Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia, and learn that a colony has established itself at a sheep ranch in Bahia Inútil on the island of Tierra del Fuego. To our surprise, we discover that since 2011 tourists have been permitted to visit this colony which now lies but half a day's journey from us. Availing of the chance of a lifetime, for around $US 80 each we book a visit there with a local tour company. 

On a chilly late-November morning just after dawn, we set off with several other tourists for the Tres Puentes car ferry just outside Punta Arenas in a battered old mini bus with dodgy rear suspension. The two and a half hour crossing to Bahía Chilota around 5 km from Porvenir, a small town settled by Croatians in 1883, takes us across the famous Strait of Magellan which joins the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The crossing is comfortable due to the lack of wind and swell on this notoriously fickle stretch of water, although the air temperature is so perishingly cold it is impossible to remain on deck for any length of time. The most memorable aspect of the voyage are the incredible mammatus cloud formations. On the horizon is a lurid line of backlit sky above which gunmetal-grey clouds hang down in eerie nodules that remind me of the skies in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Mammatus clouds, Strait of Magellan, ChileMammatus clouds, Strait of Magellan, ChileThese rare cloud formations remind me of a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Bahía Chilota sits astride a desolate stretch of flat land. One of the more conspicuous buildings that is visible as you pass through the narrow entrance into the harbour is a bright yellow church which adds a welcome splash of colour on an erstwhile drab day. We then drive the short distance to the bleak, frontier town of Porvenir with its depressing hotchpotch of shabby coloured buildings. Here we visit the Fernando Cordero Rusque Municipal Museum denoted by its landmark circular astronomical observation tower.

 

The sad fate of the Fuegians

The museum has an eclectic mix of exhibits related to life in the region. Considerable attention is devoted to indigenous flora and fauna, including the aboriginal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, which make for uncomfortable viewing if you are European. The native Fuegians belonged to several tribes including the Ona (Selk’nam), Haush (Manek’enk), Yaghan (Yámana) and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). The arrival of Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century saw the introduction of devastating diseases such as measles and smallpox to which the Fuegians had no immunity. Land grabs for ranching and gold mining, coupled with a deliberate policy of extermination of the indigenous peoples by settlers, resulted in the decimation of the Fuegians’ hunting grounds, cultures and languages, and their populations plummeted from several thousand in the nineteenth century to mere hundreds in the twentieth. Their sad fate seems to be encapsulated in the mummified remains of a female called ‘Kela’ who died about 1424 in her early-30s. Her body was found in 1974 in a cave on Tres Mogotes, a small island off Tierra del Fuego, but it is not known what culture she belonged to. Tourists leering at her grisly remains in a glass case fills me with sadness and shame. It seems so utterly improper.

Statue of a Selk’nam man, Porvenir, ChileStatue of a Selk’nam man, Porvenir, ChileThe Selk’nam nation were hunted like animals to virtual extinction by European settlers Leaving the museum we are taken to a site just above the coastline where a viciously cold onshore wind howls across the landscape. It feels like a hole is being ripped in the very fabric of history itself, for here stands a line of wooden statues of men, women and children wrapped in animal skin cloaks and bearing spears, staring through sightless eyes into the far distance. They give the impression of walking inexorably to their ultimate fate.

These wooden carvings represent the Selk’nam nation, whose people were hunted like animals to virtual extinction by European settlers. Little remains of this nation today: some dusty artefacts in the nearby museum, this poignant line of statues and a sun-faded wooden plaque with peeling varnish, mere curiosities for passing tourists…

Plenty of food for thought on the long, 130 km journey along bumpy gravel tracks through the bleak, flat, wind-blasted landscape that comprises the northern part of the island of Tierra del Fuego, ‘The Land of Fire’. The first European to visit this region was the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520. It is said that from his ship he beheld the impressive sight of many fires lit by the Yaghan nation, and it is he who gave the island its unusual name. The southern part of Tierra del Fuego is mountainous and densely forested, where firewood would have been plentiful, but the penguin colony is sited on a desolate, treeless stretch of land on a sheep ranch at Bahia Inútil (Useless Bay), a name supposedly coined by nineteenth century British geographers because it was not suitable as a port. Life here is undoubtedly hard and marginal, illustrated by the abandoned remains of several old homesteads and a windswept crumbling cemetery we spot en route. I notice a few herds of guanacos (Patagonian llamas) and some flamingos on a brackish lake in the distance, but most of the fauna consists solely of woolly Corriedale sheep.

 

P-p-picture a penguin!

The lack of native fauna makes the sight of the king penguins all the more impressive. Parque Pingüino Rey is a 125-acre plot on the 25,000-acre Estancia San Clemente, owned by Alejandro Fernández Vogelhummer and his family. On arrival we are ushered to a green geodesic tent where we are told a little about the penguin colony, the only continental breeding site in the Americas, and the most accessible king penguin colony in the world.

Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileParque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileWelcome sign to the most accessible king penguin colony in the world

The king penguin is second only in size to the Emperor penguin which can be found in Antarctica. Historically, king penguins have been present along various parts of the Austral coast; archaeological sites dating back 6,000 years reveal the presence of their bones. But these penguin colonies were consigned to the pages of history, scared away no doubt by European settler activities, until a number of the birds decided to reclaim their old turf around a decade ago by clustering at the mouth of the Marazzi River at Bahia Inútil. Their numbers increased year on year, courtship behaviour was observed and the birds finally started to breed here in 2012. At the time of our visit there are about 100 penguins present and the numbers are expected to grow.

The king penguin breeding cycle begins in November at the start of the southern hemisphere summer, when the female king penguin lays her first egg. The chick takes 55 days to hatch, then stays with its parents for 11 months. Once the chick is independent, the female must complete her moult before laying again, this time in late autumn. As a result, the king penguin’s breeding cycle takes 18 months and moves in and out of phase with the calendar year. Male and female king penguins look identical and they share the task of incubating a single egg. Instead of building a nest, they cradle the egg on their broad webbed feet, where it is kept warm in a brood pouch. The bodies of king penguins are protected from the cold by short, densely-packed feathers and a thick layer of blubber. They feed mainly on fish and squid found in the cold waters of the Southern Atlantic. At sea they are predated by seals; on land skuas snatch eggs and chicks, while the mink, a carnivorous introduced species, poses a significant threat to this colony. 

King penguins at the Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileKing penguins at the Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileThe Parque Pingüino Rey is sited on the Estancia San Clemente in Chile's Tierra del Fuego

A small group of us makes our way towards a grassy spit between a river channel and the seashore, beyond which lies the steel-grey waters of Bahia Inútil framed by a line of snowy mountains on the horizon. Visitor numbers to the colony are strictly limited and we have orders to maintain a specified distance demarcated by a rope so as not to disturb them. Borne on the wind, I can hear snatches of a strange, trumpeting sound. And suddenly, there they are! In the tussocky grass strewn with yellow flowers on the far bank of the channel we spot dozens of them. Some are huddled together like statues or are busy preening themselves occasionally flapping their wings or bending their heads backwards on seemingly elastic necks as they point their beaks heavenward to emit the unusual sound we can hear. Others looking amazingly plump are lying down, oblivious to the other members of their colony, and a few adventurous ones are clambering into and out of the water, either returning from, or going fishing, in the bay.

King penguin at Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileKing penguin at Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileOne of roughly 100 penguins in the colony during our visit The sight of these three feet high birds brings a broad smile to my face. They look vaguely humanoid with their bipedal waddle and slightly comical too, as if decked out in fancy dress: oversized black wellie boots with webbed feet; a large, blue-black tailcoat with a long white shirt; a conspicuous, yellow-orange necktie and a black and deep orange face mask! Several birds appear to be moulting and we can see their discarded feathers caught in the grass alongside the river bank. Moulting is a period of hunger for the penguin, as it cannot put to sea until it has a set of fully intact and functioning feathers. We laugh as one toboggans down the river bank into the water with a loud splash, and giggle at the odd sly peck and occasional ‘trumpet voluntary’ as one of the birds returns from the sea to join in a huddle. I notice a couple of the birds have a bloody smudge on their pristine white feathers. These wounds were likely to have been incurred during a seal attack. We then move further towards the shore to a shingly beach strewn with brown seaweed. Here one of the birds puts on a Charlie Chaplinesque display for us as it waddles round comically as if showing off, periodically flapping its wings and lifting its orange striped beak skywards to trumpet between spells of intense preening. I am struck by how dapper these birds are, quite beautiful in fact, with their blue-black, white and saffron-yellow symmetrically-patterned feathers.

Bird watching at the Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileBird watching at the Parque Pingüino Rey, Tierra del Fuego, ChileThis colony of penguins established itself at the mouth of the Marazzi River at Bahia Inútil over a decade ago and began breeding in 2012

We are loath to leave, but having spent well over an hour and a half here, we are beginning to feel decidedly chilly. There follows a long journey to a ferry at Bahia Azul for the 20 minute crossing back to the mainland. En route we pass through Cerro Sombrero, a bleak ‘one horse’ oil town with a Soviet-era aura. It boasts a toblerone-shaped church, a large building with a multi-coloured façade which looks like a Cubist painting, and a huge statue of an oil worker in front of three enormous glass buildings resembling huge greenhouses. Bizarrely, one has a tropical garden inside! 

The wind has strengthened and the crossing of the Strait of Magellan is rougher than the one we had taken earlier. The skies have cleared to the deepest blue and the sun is shining, yet it is bitterly cold on deck where the swell causes huge curtains of spray to wash over the railings.

Signpost at the ferry port of Bahia Azul, Tierra del Fuego, ChileSignpost at the ferry port of Bahia Azul, Tierra del Fuego, ChileAwaiting the ferry across the Strait of Magellan which joins the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans

 

Reflections...

I feel incredibly privileged to have seen king penguins in the wild, something I had dreamt about ever since I was a child. And it is deeply gratifying to know that a species which had been driven from Tierra del Fuego by human activity has returned to reclaim its territory. Moreover, this tenacious little colony is now being protected by the local ranchers. A story with a happy ending. Unfortunately, unlike the king penguins the indigenous Fuegians whose land this once was, will never return because of the cupidity and ignorance of Europeans who drove them to extinction. A sad and sorry chapter in the history of Latin America and yet another awful example of man’s inhumanity to man.


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