Penguin viewing on Isla Magdalena

My last stop in Patagonia was Punta Arenas, which I was visiting mostly to use the airport to fly up to Buenos Aires. But Punta Arenas is also a destination in its own right for excursions, primarily to see penguins. While talking to other travelers on the way down, I heard a lot about trips to Isla Magdalena from Punta Arenas, so that was my one goal while I was in town.

Isla Magdalena is literally an island of penguins. Every summer, they migrate from the southern coast of Brazil down to this island, a 4,000 km journey that takes around 2 months in the waters along the coast. Here, they reproduce and raise their chicks until they are strong enough to make the trip back to Brazil in February – April.

To get to Isla Magdalena from Punta Arenas, you take a 2 hour ferry through the Strait of Magellan. There are a number of companies that offer this excursion, but I was worried that I might not be able to go because it was high season and I had not made a reservation ahead of time. Thankfully, the host of my hostel directed me to Comapa, where I was still able to purchase a ticket online for 50,000 pesos ($85).

The ferry left from the Tres Puentes ferry terminal at 2pm. For almost the full two hours on the way there, they broadcasted information about Magellan, Punta Arenas, Isla Magdalena, and the penguins in Spanish and English. A few facts that I caught:

Isla Magdalena is a small island with scarce fauna and only one building, a lighthouse, built in 1902. The average temperature reaches 0 degrees Celsius in the winter and 8 degrees Celsius in the summer, when the penguins live there. One main reason why penguins like this island is because they need lots of daylight to reproduce and fish, and the sun is up from approximately 4:30am to 10:45pm here. Penguins make up most of the inhabitants, but seagulls and other birds also live there, and they are the primary predators of the penguins because they feed on their eggs.

Altogether, the island has something around 58,000 couples of penguins. The males arrive first, in September, and find the previous borough or one that is similar. 15 days later, the females arrive. They lay the eggs, which take 40-45 days to hatch, and the couple takes turns incubating the eggs and raising the chicks. Come February, the chicks molt and are ready to leave the island first. Juveniles (penguins that are 3-4 years old) follow, and the adults are the last to leave the island in April because they need more time to lose their feathers and to recuperate from breeding. They can live up to 25 years, repeating this cycle each year.

The Magellanic penguins are very social, staying in groups to fish. Underwater, they can reach 45km/hr, go to depths of 45m, and stay submerged for up to 3 minutes.

Along with the facts were the rules, which they repeated at least 5 times, just to make sure they are hammered into your brain:

  • Always walk on the path. Do not extend arms or cameras outside the path
  • Do not or sit down on the path because it blocks other people from walking on the path, and because fleas, ticks, and other unidentified critters from the penguins are on the path.
  • No eating, smoking, or throwing garbage.
  • No photos with flash
  • No selfie sticks
  • Stay at least 1 meter away from the penguins, to “not stress them” (exact words)
  • Conaf only allows us visits of up to 1 hour on the island, subject to weather and tides.

Soon, we saw the island in the distance.

Almost exactly at 4pm, we landed on the island. Little dark figures and holes dotted the entire island. Like a dense colony of prairie dogs — but penguins!

There is a circular pathway from the ferry to the lighthouse and back, which we had to stay on and which we had the hour to complete. Even though you are confined to a path, you’re definitely walking amongst the penguins! Sometimes they were just a meter or two away, and sometimes their nests were right on the other side of the rope. I hardly needed my telephoto lens at all for pictures!

Every once in a while, a penguin would decide to cross the path. It would look intently at the other side with an anxious wiggle and scurry across when people stopped to let it through.

It was hard not to snap a picture of every penguin in sight. But the guides from the ferry shepherded us along, giving consistent reminders of “keep moving, please,” and “it’s already been 20 minutes, we need to complete the circuit and be back on the ferry in one hour!”

The circuit itself is so short that you could probably complete it in under 5 minutes with ease, but with all the penguin distractions, an hour flew by like nothing. They are fairly serious about the 1 hour time limit, since we were all ushered back on the ferry in the end. The ferry departed just a little behind schedule, at 5:05pm.

I was sad to leave, but understand the hour time limit. Having human visitors no doubt disturbs the natural environment and the penguins’ activities, and I’m incredulous that we get to visit the island and walk amongst the penguins in the first place. But I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do it, and I hope that the island can remain mostly unspoiled for centuries to come!

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