Penguins at the End of the World

Flying in to Ushuaia

I said goodbye to El Calafate and by 9:50 a.m., I was in Ushuaia the city known as the most southern city in the world with a motto of “fin del mundo” aka the end of the world. Ushuaia is located on the southern tip of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (in other words Tierra del Fuego Island), surrounded by the Andes mountains on one side and the Beagle Channel on the other. The Beagle Channel is the gateway point to the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern oceans. At one time, Ushuaia was a penal colony, but the prison was shut down in 1947. In order to make the area attractive, Argentina introduced a no tax zone for industries locating to Ushuaia. As a result, there is a considerable manufacturing industry in Ushuaia. In addition, tourism took off here in the 1990s and Ushuaia has become the main port for cruises to the Antarctica. (I did not leave from Ushuaia, but rather Punta Arenas in Chile.)

Ushuaia “End of the World”

Anyway, I reached my hotel by 10:30 a.m. and was ensconced in my room about 15 minutes later after they allowed me an early check in. (YAY!) After settling in, I set off to explore the little town center before my afternoon tour to Martillo Island to see … PENGUINS! Yep. I didn’t get enough of those little creatures in the Antarctic so I was going to see some more. This time, gentoo, which I saw in Antarctica and Magellantic, which I have not seen.

Anyway, I took a wander down along the waterfront and decided to stop for an early lunch as it was closing in on noon. I had read great reviews about El Viejo Marino and happened to pass by the restaurant as I walked along the waterfront so El Viejo Marino it would be.

My lunch

Now the obvious speciality in Ushuaia is seafood since it is so close to three oceans. And the big draw here is Spider Crabs so when in Rome …. Anyway, I ordered the small portion of Spider Crab for lunch along with some saffron rice and could not wait to taste what has been billed as fantastic food. Sadly, the food did not live up to the hype. I thought the Spider Crab was good, but not even in the same league as Dungeness Crab or King Crab. HUGE disappointment.

So after lunch, I wandered main street and then went back to my hotel to put on some additional clothing. The temperature in Ushuaia has been unseasonably cold at 6-7 Celsius (about 43 degrees) so I figured I might need some extra clothes.

Just before 2:00 p.m., I went to the Piro Tours offices to pick up my ticket and board the mini-bus for the 2:30 departure for Harberton Ranch. As luck would have it, the 20 people going on the trip arrived early so our tour guide, Augustine, instructed Joe the driver to leave early. So we set off shortly before 2:15.

Driving National Route 3

The trip was going to take us over National Route 3 through the Olivia River Valley to Harberton Ranch. Before reaching the ranch, we would be stopping to see the “flag trees”, which grow in a bent form as a result of the winds. Once we reached Harberton Ranch we would be taking a 10 minute boat ride on a zodiac to see the penguins. Then after the one hour visit with the penguins, we wold return to Harberton Ranch to visit the Acatashún Museum.

Home of the sled dogs

Now the trip along National Route 3 was interesting for a variety of reasons. First, we passed a farm that houses Alaskan malamutes, which are used in Ushuaia during the winter months for sledding. The dogs are available to visit and if I have time on Friday afternoon, I may try to go see them.

Second, I learned that Ushuaia and the surrounding area have a beaver problem. Apparently 50 or so beavers were brought from Canada to Ushuaia after the penal colony was closed in 1947. The idea was to use the skins of beavers to make leather belts, hats and gloves. Unfortunately, the beavers have no natural predators in the are (i.e. no puma, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, wolves etc.) so the beaver population took off. Today there are over 100,000 beavers, and they are making a mess of the forests and rivers.

Beaver Dam

Finally, we learned about and drove through Ushuaia’s burgeoning winter sports area. There is a small ski hill and massive cross country skiing, sled dog racing and snowmobiling across acres of peat moss bogs that are covered in snow from the beginning of May through early October.

Winter storm damage

And also as we drove along National Route 3, we passed forested areas that have been completely devastated by huge winter storms. Everywhere we looked, we could see downed trees and rotting dead trees that had been toppled by the massive winds that blow through the area every winter.

Beagle Channel between Argentina and Chile
Flag trees

About an hour into the trip, we turned off the highway and onto a gravel road that would take us to the ranch. We once again saw the Beagle Channel and then soon stopped by the side of the road to take a look at the flag trees. As we climbed out of the mini-bus, we immediately felt the full force of the Tierra del Fuego winds. It was suddenly very blustery. And after feeling the effects of the wind, I could understand the shape of the trees, which indeed looked like flags blowing in the wind. With the blustery conditions in these parts, the trees have been permanently bent in the direction the wind blows the trees. The unusual scene reminded me of trees my mother and I saw at the Cape of Good Hope. Completely bent in one direction. Crazy.

Harberton Ranch

Twenty minutes after the flag tree stop we were pulling into the Harberton Ranch. Now the ranch was founded in 1886 when former missionary Thomas Bridges resigned from the Anglican mission at Ushuaia. His great-grandson continues to run the ranch, but its primary business is now tourism. The island on which the penguins nest is part of the ranch so the family controls who has access to the penguins. My tour company, Piro Tours, is the only company in Ushuaia permitted access to the island, although other tours take boats around the island to view the penguins. However, viewing is not the same as access so would be walking with the penguins as opposed to simply looking at them through binoculars.

Our zodiac
Contemplating life

Anyway, we boarded the waiting zodiac and ten minutes later we arrived at Martillo Island. As I bent over to ease out of the covered zodiac, I spotted the first little gentoo waddling along the beach. The gentoo rookery, it turned out, was directly in front of the zodiac landing. Now there were plenty of rules for our walk. No touching the penguins. No leaving the group. No leaving the designated path. All pretty sensible rules to protect these lovely little creatures. Fortunately, we did not have any jackasses disobey the rules.

A “KIng” among Gentoo
Hey it’s penguins

So with a clear directions for what we could and could not do, Augustine lead our little group up the beach and along the path to view the rookery. And … what the heck is this? I was certain that two of the penguins hanging out with the gentoo were King penguins. Gentoo penguins are smaller with long tails, black and white markings, and orange beaks. King penguins, on the other hand, are the second largest penguin behind the Emperor so they are much, much bigger than gentoo penguins. In addition, King penguins have orange colouring on their head and chest. Curious, I walked over to Augustine and asked him if those two were King. Yep. Sure were.

Apparently, one or two King penguins have been showing up at the gentoo colony for the past seven years. Until a couple days ago, there was only one in the rookery, but a second one showed up earlier this week. I was absolutely thrilled because I had not seen King penguins in the Antarctica since the King penguins had already left when I arrived in February.

Gentoo building a nest

Anyway, we spent the better part of a half an hour watching these crazy birds. Now the gentoo were nesting so many of the birds were waddling back and forth with rocks and sticks in their beaks which would be inevitably dropped on the nest where their partner was protecting the eggs. One industrious little fella was at it nonstop. It was so funny that I had to take a video.

Meanwhile, the two King penguins were simply standing in the middle of all the action. Both were molting so they looked absolutely huge as the fluffy underfeathers were ready to fall off.

King versus Gentoo
A gentoo fight
Gentoo calling out

And some of the gentoo penguins seemed a little miffed by the presence of the King penguins. One gentoo in particular seemed threatened by the King and kept squawking at the King while the King squawked back. It seems that since the gentoo were nesting they were very particular about anyone or anything interfering with their nest building, which apparently continues even after the eggs have been laid.

After a visit to the gentoo colony, we followed the path to the backside of the colony where we encountered the first magellanic penguin. This one was off on its own seemingly taking in the beautiful scenery before it had to go back to nesting duties.

Magellanic penguin .. “Why can’t I fly?”

Now the magellanic penguins nesting habits are much different than the gentoo. While the gentoo build nests, the magellanic penguins dig holes in the ground. One penguin stays in the hole while the other leaves the nest and feeds. The penguin in the nesting hole periodically comes out to scratch or stretch, but does not leave the nest for food for a period of three to five days. At the end of the period, the penguins switch off and the nesting penguin can go off to eat while the other now takes over the nesting duties.

With a Magellanic penguin
Magellanic penguin braying near nest

Anyway, we left the backside of the gentoo nesting grounds and began to wander along the path that took us by the magellanic nesting areas. As we walked around, we saw the non-nesters, preening and generally enjoying life while we could peer into the holes and see the poor, hungry nesting bird whiling away its time on the eggs.

Upland goose

And as we wandered around, we saw a number of birds in the area. However, most of the birds were Upland geese which only feed on grasses. We did not see any skua, which are the natural predator of the penguin, feeding on penguin eggs and penguin chicks. I remember those birds very well in the Antarctica where we saw them frequently hanging out on the beaches near the penguin colonies.

Magellanic penguins on the waterfront

As we continued to walk along the path around the magellanic nesting areas, I kept looking at penguins that were not near the nesting areas. These seemed to be far more interesting because they weren’t confined to the holes. I even saw a group of four megellanic penguins wandering along in a row on the beach. I have no idea if they were going for a swim or simply hanging out, but them made for a funny sight. Unfortunately, I lost sight of them over a dune.

Magellanic penguin in a nest
Magellanic penguins cleaning each other
Magellanic penguin and one in the nest

And the other thing that made the magellanic nesting areas a bit boring is that with the holes dug, there was not nearly the action around the nest areas that we saw with the gentoo. I think the best I saw was three Magellanic penguins pop out of the nest to stretch, scratch and pull oil of their tail feathers to rub on their bodies. The penguins do this to prepare their bodies for the coming migration in the cold waters. Once the chicks are old enough, the penguins will leave the breeding grounds and go to other areas. However, the long swim requires enough insulation in the form of self produced oils, which the penguins rub over their bodies to insult them from the cold. Amazing.

Magellanic penguin … “what are you looking at?”

Sadly, our hour with the penguins came to a very quick conclusion. Augustine rounded us up and we headed back towards the landing area to board the zodiac. As we approached the zodiac, there were two gentoo penguins very close to the zodiac. As a result, we had to walk very slowly and very carefully so as not to scare the penguins. Of course, a couple people just HAD to have another selfie with the penguins and rather than moving slowly, rushed over, which sent both penguins moving much further from the zodiac. I was actually relieved to see them move as I did not want the little guys to feel threatened by the invaders.

Gentoo penguins on beach as we leave

Anyway, once on board we left the lovely little (and two large) penguins and took the ten minute zodiac ride back to the ranch. We stopped and had some tea to warm up (yep it was very cold, but I was dressed for the occasion) and to take a short break before going over to the Acatashún Museum also known as the Skelton Museum for its vast collection of skeletons from whales, seals and penguins that have been found on the shores of the ranch beach as well as on Martillo Island.

Acatashún Museum

We had a quick tour of the museum where a young woman provided us with information about the skeletons on display as well as a bit of history about the museum. It was informative, but I actually would have preferred simply walking around and looking at the skeletons as well as reading the information on each display.

After the tour we boarded the buses for the 1 ½ hour drive back to Ushuaia, which saw us arriving just before 8:30 p.m. It had been a fantastic tour, but I was exhausted after a very, very long day. I was going to get a good night’s sleep before my hiking and canoeing adventure tomorrow.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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