Magellanic Penguins at Punta Tombo National Reserve, Patagonia, Argentina
Puerto Madryn is the gateway to Peninsula Valdes in central eastern Patagonia, knowns as the best place to observe large marine life in their natural habitat. It is also the gateway to the Punto Tombo Natural Reserve, home to the largest colony of Magelan penguins in South America. I have seen whales but not penguins, so Porto Tombo it was.
We drove about 2 h south of Puerto Madryn along the coast hoping to see the thousands of Magelanic penguins who return to the shores of Patagonia every year. From September until the end of March the penguins spend their time picking their partners, mating, laying eggs, incubate their eggs, raising the chicks and preparing for the trip north to Brazil. Penguins mate for life and can live more than 30 years together.
The reserve is rather remote and the last 50 km or so are gravel roads so be prepared for some dust and rough patches, although over all the road is good. Be sure to fill up your tank as there are no gas stations within a convenient distance.
The natural reserve land was previously a private ranch (estancia) and was donated to the Chubut province by the owner in the 1970s. The large tract of land is home to various wildlife and en route we saw many alpacas (similar to llamas but smaller) roaming the fields safe from human predators.
The penguin reserve is regulated and you cannot just go wandering as you please. You enter through the ranger’s station and then follow a path, about a kilometer long, leading to the beach observation point. You begin to see penguins right away, they often seek shelter and shade below the footbridges along the path and in their burrows.
Magellan penguins are named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first spotted the species in 1520. They are about 30″ tall with tuxedo-like black back and white chest. Chicks are softer brown on the back and white on the front. Before laying the eggs they dig a burrow in the ground, often under a thorny bush, and the female lays her two eggs in the security of the shelter. The male stands guard by the burrow to protect the female but there is a division of labour as they take turns hatching the eggs and going out into the sea nearby to feed on fish and replenish body fat. They trade places every week or 10 days and while they remain on hatching duty they do not eat at all. Incubation continues for about 40 days and when the chicks hatch they remain in the burrows for another month until their waterproof feathers develop. One thing that surprised me was the lack of snow and the heat. Don’t penguins love the cold? Apparently not, Magellanic penguins hatch their eggs where temperatures remain over 20ºC.
On land penguins have no natural predators to worry about, but at sea they are preyed upon by seals and killer whales and unfortunately, some of them do not return to their burrows. Their biggest threat though cones from oil spills and decline of sea life on which they feed.
Each year the penguins return to Punta Tombo to the same burrow they dug before. The male arrive earlier to make sure their burrow hasn’t been snapped up by some lazy penguin who prefers not to dig their own. Once the female arrives, she connects with her mate through his call.
We were lucky to have the colony still in the reserve as the season for hatching and raising the young was coming to an end. It was a remarkable to see them waddle clumsily on land and swim with such grace and efficiency in the water. Unphased by our presence they did not seem to mind us and we could get close although never left the marked path. They seem to tolerate the hundreds of tourists that flock to the area, and people were quite respectful of their presence and kept their distance.
It was a special experience, a new one for me and one I would like to repeat when opportunity arises.
What an amazing trip you’re on! Have you shared a Google Maps itinerary. I’d love to physically see all the locations you’ve visited plotted out on a map. What an inspiring journey!
Hi Murissa, nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment. I will try to figure out how to do that, it would be fun to trace it on a map. We were on land first and then cruised the rest of the way. Hope to connect this summer with you and the Kelowna foodies.