In the largely uninhabited Patagonia, the biggest settlement is home to penguins. Some 460.000 Magellanic penguins live at Punta Tombo, a number that roughly doubles in February/March. That’s an incredible amount of these friendly, non-flying birds! It is said that outside the Antarctic continent, Punta Tombo in Argentina hosts the largest penguin colony on earth. Counting all colonies on the Patagonian coastline (including both Chile and Argentina), the total number of penguins outnumbers the total of human Patagonian inhabitants. It’s about time to get to know Patagonia’s main occupant, the Magellanic penguin.
Magellanic penguins measure about knee-high and can reach an age of 30 years. Half of the year they spend on land to mate, incubate, raise their young and moult their feathers, the other half they swim the warm and rich fishing waters of Brazil. Penguins come back to the same nest every year. Some are lucky, and have nests under shrubs close to the shoreline, others have to walk a few kilometers to get to shallow, unprotected hollows in the ground. Watching them going, you’ll wonder what they did wrong to get equipped with such short legs. Pairs are said to be faithful, but that depends on the efforts of the male to prepare a nest for the female to lay her eggs. If she doesn’t like the nest, she’ll look for another mate.
In september, male penguins come to the shores, shortly followed by their mates. They look quite similar, but recognize one another by their sound. September/October is springtime, so lots of court-shipping and mating is going on. From November the females lay their eggs and the colony is usually rather quiet. Penguins lay two eggs; little over half of the chicks survives. Predators are always nearby, hungry and eager in either robbing eggs or little chicks. Mainly seagulls and skuas are seen very close to the nesting birds. After 42 days the eggs hatch and two tiny grey fuzzy balls appear, which are quickly hidden. Usually one penguin is seen on the nest while the other is out for food.
In December the penguin high activity season starts. The chicks, still fluffy and cute, now insistently nag for food. The fattest chick is most likely to live, so they chase, beg and annoy the poor parent present on the job. Once their job is done, they leave the chicks to their fate and go out to feed, only to come back for moulting their feathers. In February the chicks already start changing to all-weather plumage, looking like they got violently attacked. By this time the beaches get very crowded, with chicks taking their first swimming lessons and non-breeding youngsters returning to the colony to moult. From April things get quite once again, when the penguins start to leave for life at sea.
Punta Tombo is about 2,5 hours driving from Puerto Madryn. It’s easy to understand why the penguins chose this stretch of beautiful, pure Patagonian coastline as their home. You’ll get very close to the colony walking on a two kilometer natural trail. Once on their terrain, penguins rule. They always have priority crossing your path and usually don’t bother with you as long as you don’t bother them. Walking the trail in the enormous are that Punta Tombo covers, you will only see a small percentage of the penguins. However, thousands of penguins is still a lot. Enjoy watching their odd manners, listen to their impressive sounds and make friends with a penguin or two.
And most of all, beware of penguins walking backwards!!