If you are not a fan of penguins, do not read on.
But let’s face it, who doesn’t like penguins?
While I don’t really like tours, this is the only way to visit the penguin colony on Isla Martillo, as the island is heavily monitored and only 20 people are allowed to land at a time, and only twice a day. We paid an extortionate amount to be part of those 20 people. All the other more reasonably-priced tours pull up alongside the beach but are not allowed to disembark. While we are travelling on a budget, I know when its worth paying top whack. This was one of those times, and I don’t regret a penny/peso.
While there was no real need to travel in a monster truck, this vehicle turning up to take us off to Estancia Harberton for the boat over to the island did add somewhat to the adventure…
The roads were rough gravel but would have been perfectly doable in an ordinary minibus.
One the way there we stopped at a couple of viewpoints, with admittedly stunning views of the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, across the Beagle strait.
Next stop was a museum of local marine wildlife at a research station – to be honest, I was just thinking COME ON, SHOW ME THE PENGUINS!!! but the woman giving the tour was a student marine biologist, very enthusiastic, and Lauren in particular loved learning the differences between dolphins and porpoises and all sorts of Attenborough-esque stuff. We also got taken to the lab, with lots of cool bones…
Eventually it was time to catch the boat over to the island, and we jumped at the opportunity to sit at the front, despite the freezing cold wind. Couldn’t understand all the others huddling inside. This is Patagonia for goodness sake, it might be a bit chilly! We were later joined by a young lad from London who was having a ‘quarter life crisis’ at 25 … made me feel ancient.
Soon we were approaching the island, and even from the boat we could see the hundreds and hundreds of penguins, all pottering about the beach, sitting on their nests and making their way into and out of the water.
The tour guide gave us a very stern warning about ‘controlling our emotions’ and reinforced the two-metre rule (no body part or technology within 2m of a penguin) before allowing us to disembark from the zodiac. Luckily no one was watching my undignified descent as they were all too enraptured by the penguins on the shore.
It truly was amazing to be so close to these funny little creatures, who clearly couldn’t care less about us snapping photos. Poor Lauren looked stricken and delighted all at once as one curious penguin came right up to her – breaking the 2 metre rule by a good 1.9 metres.
In fact, penguins often weaved in and out of our group, and at times it was impossible to maintain a 2 metre distance from them all. With the exception of one stupid woman trying to get a selfie who got soundly told off by the tour guide, everyone was very respectful and behaved impeccably.
Most of the penguins were Magellanic – the same type we’ve seen before in South Africa – and as we moved from the beach up to the top of the island we walked through hundreds of their burrows, often with the couple sitting together by or in it. The young from this year had already left for the sea, leaving their parents behind. In another month, the older penguins will follow, as they spend 6 months on land and 6 at sea. We saw a number of adolescents with their fluffy grey plumage giving way to the rather scruffy black and white of the adults.
We spent a good while meandering among the burrows on a man-made pathway; one couple had made their burrow right in the middle of the path, and many others along the side, so that it was impossible to avoid walking right by them. The noise was incredible, with so many birds calling at once.
After plenty of time with the Magellanic penguins we headed to the other side of the island where another species of penguin live, this time the Gentoo penguins – funny yellow feet and slightly bigger, although less numerous and less interested in us. These guys were hilarious, stomping about and going up to the waters edge, hesitating, then turning round, repeatedly – they looked like divers losing their nerve on the big board. Mind you, when some did enter or leave the water, they were incredibly graceful, and we were lucky enough to see some flying through the air in great leaps out of the water before the last leap brought them back to shore as the sun was setting.
All too soon the one hour we were allotted at this stunning place was up and the boat came to pick us up. Cue more inelegant clambering and a high speed retreat back to the island of Tierra del Fuego. We chose to sit at the back this time, alongside the driver, and at one point he gestured for Lauren to climb up on his platform – I thought he was going to let her ‘drive’ but actually he’d spotted a sea lion basking in the last rays of sunshine, and wanted her to see in case the boat spooked it. Hardly – he managed to get us really close without it doing more than lift its head and look at us curiously, before slumping back into a doze. Lovely to see animals so unconcerned about humans.
Once back on dry land we had another 2 hour bumpy journey back to Ushuaia, and a very late dinner, but the long uncomfortable journey, the huge cost, and even having dinner 3 hours late was pronounced by Lauren to be ‘totally worth it’.
I’ll settle for that 🙂
P.S. If the pictures aren’t enough, I uploaded a short video here – worth it just to hear the noise they make! Watch for them coming out of the water at speed right at the very beginning, and see if you can spot the moment I cut the camera off a millisecond before a penguin did an enormous poo in my direction. Just missed.