Magellanic Penguins of Patagonia
The Magellanic penguins of Patagonia look like they’re waddling around the set of a Charlie Chaplin film on a crusty no-nonsense island on the edge of nowhere. They look comical, pompous and very busy. They bray and sound frustrated and indignant – possibly because they are.
On a cruise Blonde took through the Strait of Magellan, using Swoop Patagonia‘s travel advice, the Magellanic penguins were entertaining to watch and interesting to learn about. We had a guide who was a Magellanic penguin savant. Before getting off the Zodiac onto the island we were told to walk only within the roped area and to never get in the way of a penguin crossing the road. Based on the direct stink-eye from penguins who wanted to cross (and they all did) it was as if they’d heard the warning and were testing our compliance level.
Magellanic penguins are small – with juveniles weighing about 5.5 pounds and mature males 14.5 pounds. They’re only 2 to 2.5 feet high but they have an air of authority that far exceeds their size.
Think Mel Gibson in feathers throwing a tantrum.
Magellanic penguins and the importance of good housekeeping
The analogy to Mel Gibson falls apart right way though because Magellanic penguins are monogamous. They work very hard cleaning their burrows of the previous year so when the wife arrives she doesn’t declare it unfit for reproductive activity.
The males get dirty cleaning the nests and have to get in the water frequently to get themselves clean again.
The female penguins have a good reason for their high housekeeping standards. If a nest isn’t in pristine shape it can damage the feathers of chicks and they can die. Failing the nest inspection sets a guy up for some ambitious not-yet- mated younger male penguin trying to get a mate to say “Hey little lady, come see my superior burrow”.
Time to make more Magellanic penguins
When the ladies arrive on the island the men all start to bray loud donkey-like sounds. Penguins can recognize the voices of their mates and when they think they have an audio match they add a little sniffing for confirmation. (Don’t we all?)
Once they get down to egg-producing business they almost always produce two eggs. Nature’s way of trying to make sure there is at least one survivor. The eggs are incubated for 40 days and the parents shift off incubator duty about every 10 days. Like many humans, when they aren’t babysitting, Magellanic penguins go out to eat and restore their body fat. They don’t eat while incubating so presumably they’re quite hungry when their shifts end.
These are seriously attentive parents because once the chicks are hatched the parents take turns watching the chicks and going to get food for the family. They’re far too busy to work outside the home; maybe Chile provides generous penguin parental leave.
Getting dressed for Magellanic penguin business
After a month the chicks will begin to grow their feathers. Their parents keep combing their feathers to get rid of the baby feathers. There is a gland on the penguin’s tail that produces an oil which the penguin then uses his bill to spread around and seal his feathers. Our guide said penguin feathers are the best wetsuits that exist (and they don’t even have to pull up those annoying zippers in the back).
And that penguin stink-eye? It may be because they have a poor field of vision when they’re on land. In the penguin version of a superpower, which they acquire in the ocean, a membrane coats their, eyes like prescription lenses and they can suddenly see fine.
When “leaving the nest” is literal
Magellanic penguin chicks that have been hatched in Patagonia in October will be ready to get in the ocean and become independent by the end of February. Nature does a ruthless job of sorting out who’s fit and who isn’t as they get in the water and head to either the Pacific or Atlantic for their first migration.
No living in the burrow with your parents when the time comes to migrate. Mom and Pop do not allow their offspring back into the burrows; the chicks are guarded to make sure they get in the ocean. (There must not be any Millennial penguins.)
Stayin’ alive – the Magellanic penguin version
The Magellanic penguins of Patagonia don’t have any natural predators when nature is in balance. South American sea lions and birds have begun to attack Magellanic penguins because the food sources for the penguins have been depleted. They now have to swim father out for their food and with the increased distances they risk becoming someone else’s food. (But oil spills remain the greatest large-scale risk to their survival.)
We saw a film on the cruise ship that showed migrating males getting to a hole in the ice that would give them a major shortcut in their long and brutal migration. But a sea lion popped its head up through the hole and made the penguins think long and hard about taking that route.
While they mulled what to do they had to wait out a ferocious snow and wind storm and didn’t really have the energy left for the long route. They took the short way and the sea lion was no longer there. If it had been, everyone would have sobbed watching the movie. We were sad enough seeing old penguins getting too slow to keep up with the pack which provides protection. Eventually, if an elderly penguin falls far behind and gets disoriented he will die.
Why you want expertise like SwoopPatgonia provides
Ferdinand Magellan first spotted the (not yet named) Magellanic penguins in 1520. He had to try to figure everything out for himself.
You probably have a limited amount of time to explore Patagonia and learn about the terrain, animals and history. There aren’t public libraries or wi-fi to look things up.
For our group having well-informed guides who really knew and cared about their subject matter made the trip memorable. It also resulted in us actually learning things so we could bore our friends when we got home. And isn’t that one of the primary joys of travel?
Disclosure: When our trip to Antarctica was suddenly cancelled after the ship hit an iceberg (before we were on it) SwoopPatagonia came up with a fabulous Plan B trip (even though they had nothing to do with the failed trip). They generously comped Blonde on the cruise to the penguin colony. Even if they hadn’t done that their helpfulness and knowledge was exemplary. But free is nice – even though it actually doesn’t influence our opinions of an experience because we already feel so entitled.