Saturday, March 3, 2012


Friday we took the recommendation of every other TripAdvisor traveler who has been through Ushuaia and went on a Pira Penguin tour.  The agency is the only one to have a license to dock a small boat on Isla Martillo and visit the penguin rookery there.  It was an outstanding trip and despite a bumpy nausea-inducing shuttle ride, the Traveling Stoneleys, Grandma Shirley and Grandpa Bob had an amazing day!
But first things first.  Our day started with the drive out of Ushuaia to the east.  We went along the mountains, through the forests and around the Beagle Channel.  Windswept trees lined the coast and we stopped to admire their twisted and warped look.  We also got a good view of Puerto Williams across the channel (Chile's naval base town that really is the last permanent settlement at the end of the world.)  
That's some powerful wind!
We continued on to Estancia Harberton, the oldest settlement in the Tierra del Fuego area.  Founded by Thomas Bridges, an Englishman who came to the area via missionaries working in the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands.)  The Estancia served as a sheep and cattle ranch, the first general store, it imported all kinds of goods for the gold miners and native people in area, and grew vegetables and meat to sell to the surrounding areas.  
The estancia still has the same wood covered tin corrugated iron construction from its early days. 
Patagonia Red Fox in the brush at the estancia.

Also on the property was the Museo Acatushún de Aves y Mamíferos Marinos Australes, a museum filled with an extensive collection of skeletal remains from many of the sea creatures and land birds in the area.  We had a 45 minute tour of the museum and I wish we had had more time. It was filled with skeletons of whales, penguins, dolphins and other creatures that had been collected in a bay off the Atlantic coast just north of the area.  The bay has a differential of 11km. from high tide to low tide(!) and many animals get trapped there as a result.  The guides were very knowledgeable and we learned a lot.  The skeletons were hung over realistic life-size paintings of the animals, giving you the perspective of exactly where their bones are located in the body.  Although small it was one of the best museums we've seen on our travels.

Dolphin skeletons
Seal skeleton
Finally we were off on the boat for the main event.  We zipped out to the island in about 15 minutes and pulled the boat up on shore to the welcoming stares of a beach full of penguins.  There were three species on the island.  The Magellan penguins were most numerous.  Their identifying characteristics are the black and white stripes across their chests and the white and black circles around their eyes.  We also saw the Gentoo penguins with orange peaks and orange feet.  They are a little larger than the Magellan penguins and a bit stouter looking.  

Magellan penguins walking around their nesting area (although there weren't any chicks left on the island.)
Gentoo penguin
Muchos pinguinos! (Magellans)
Both groups of penguins were in molting season so the beach was covered with feathers and many of the penguins looked kind of ruffled and disheveled.  Unfortunately, there were no chicks on the island.  We could still see their nests, but the babies had already left for open waters after developing the proper waterproof feathers necessary to make it on their own.  The Skua gulls, the main predators of the penguins' eggs and chicks, were also still around on the island.
Gentoo penguin laying on the beach. 
Harper and Cal whispering about the Gentoo penguin just a few feet in front of them.  
The last kind of penguin on the island were two King penguins.  King penguins are very similar in look to Emperor penguins but shorter in height.  King penguins don't usually visit Isla Martillo but last year one King penguin showed up in the area and this year there are two.  The biologists don't know the sex of the penguins or if they intend to raise their young in the area but they are excited by the new species coming to Isla Martillo.
The King penguins were definitely our favorite.  Their orange chest feathers are so vibrant compared to the rest of their sleek black and white body.  Our guide, Santiago, told us that the King penguins seem most comfortable with the Gentoo penguins and spend their days in the same area.  Harper hasn't seen the movie, March of the Penguins, and although it is about the Emperor penguin, we will be sure to watch it this summer.
The King penguin preens its feathers and you can see the molting on the Gentoo to the right.
Santi has one of the best jobs in the world (and some very penguin-esque shades)
It was an amazing day seeing all those penguins waddling around the island.  Cal was on his best behavior to not scare the penguins with his loud mouth and high energy.  Harper loved the penguins hiding in the brush and she was great at quietly creeping up close to get a better look.  None of us could believe that we were close enough to reach out and touch them.  While we were in awe of the penguins, they simply ignored us and went about preening their feathers and lounging about.  After we got in the boat Harper said her favorite part was watching the penguins swim around in the channel.  Danny agreed; they are so agile in the water.  Santi told us they can easily out maneuver seals because of their quick sudden bursts of speed and how quickly they can turn around- while swimming full speed a penguin can change directions 180 degrees in the space of 1/4 of its body length!  
I love the short and stubby Gentoos.
Penguin yoga
Out for a morning walk.

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