Magdalena Island Penguin
Magellanic Penguins nesting
A pair of Magdalena Island Penguins
3 Waddling Penguins
Magdalena Island Magellanic Penguins at the seashore
Magdalena Island beach
Magdalena Island Magellanic Penguins
Magdalena Island
Australis at Magdalena Island
Magdalena Island at sunrise
Via Asustralis
Australis off shore Magdalena Island
Sunrise at Magdalena Island
Magdalena Island, Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos
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This island in the Strait of Magellan is home to a colony of Magellanic Penguins

On a very chilly and blustery early morning in October, our ship arrived near Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan, Chile. The strait is named after Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer and navigator who, under the patronage of Charles I of Spain, in 1520, became the first European to navigate the sea route separating the mainland in the north and the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego in the southernmost tip of South America.

Located thirty-two kilometres northeast of Punta Arenas, the largest city in the southernmost region of Chile, Magdalena Island is the main part of the Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos (Los Pingüinos Natural Monument) and is the location for Chile’s largest Magellanic Penguin breeding site.

Magellanic Penguins were named for Ferdinand Magellan, the first European explorer to discover these creatures; he was probably the first non-native to see a penguin.

The island is uninhabited and is a well-maintained ecological nature reserve protected by the Chilean government. Careful ecotourism allows limited intrusions into the penguins’ habitat. The island has become a popular tourist destination, so to ensure sustainable use of the penguins as a tourist resource, visitors are allowed to get up close with thousands of Magellanic Penguins during breeding season only under the leadership of knowledgeable and trained guides.

Magdalena Island was to be our last stop before our ship returned to port. As we disembarked the Via Australis cruise ship, which had already taken us through one of the most breath-taking regions in the world, Southern Patagonia near Cape Horn, as close as one can get to Antarctica, I joined a group of adventurers onboard one of the many Zodiacs, an inflatable boat, that were used by the ship’s crew to ferry visitors onto land.

As the sun was just rising, peeking up from the horizon, the golden orange light revealed a seemingly brownish barren isolated landmass in the middle of the sea. As the Zodiac made its fast approach, we started to see that the land was not bare but dotted with numerous moving black and white specks. Closer still, the specks were revealed, and thousands and thousands of penguins came into view as we docked on the island.

Beyond the incredible sight of these penguins scurrying about their business, the sounds and the indescribable low guttural “honking” noises that sound like a broken car horn were overwhelming.

We were well-advised not to touch the penguins and to stay out of their way. Roped off paths provided visitors with a well-marked route to walk around the island and to the one other focal point, the lighthouse on its highest elevation.

At this time of the year, there is no snow. Magdalena Island is a dry flat place, with no trees or shrubs.

Breeding is the primary function of their brief stay on Magdalena Island, and thousands of breeding pairs of penguins went about doing their own thing.

During the breeding season, the male penguins usually find their way back to the approximate place where they were hatched and then try to set up a territory and a nest to attract a mate.

Vocalisation is very important, and males are heard noisily calling for their mates. And they are indeed very loud. Once one gets started, others join in. When they are calling, their flippers stick out to the side and their bill points straight up into the air. This position seems to give them the maximum effect of vocal strength and loudness. The display is one that also shows the prowess of the male. For a female, this is probably very appealing.

The calls also seem to be an individual signature, so that a penguin’s identity can be distinguished by his voice.

When the females return and hear the males calling out for their mates, they answer and find their partner and then inspect the quality of the nest. Apparently, that is the highest on the list of criteria for females. A good nest also seems to be the most important factor in the success of raising chicks, so it is constantly worked on. Thousands of these nests are burrowed and sculpted out from the ground on the island, and they each seem to be just big enough for the female to snuggle into.

The females typically lay two eggs. Once that is accomplished, the males go back to sea to feed and may be gone for a few weeks. Once they return, the females take their turn and go to sea, feed, and return. The males and females alternate leaving the nest for the sea to feed until the eggs hatch.

After thirty to forty days, the eggs hatch and the parents start bringing food to the chicks, which can eat more than their body weight. It takes about three months to raise a chick. On average only three out of four chicks make it. This seems harsh, but they do have enormous numbers to offset those poor odds. When the chicks are about three months old, they just leave the nest, walk into the water, and go into the sea on their own. If they survive, they may come back onto land in nine to ten months. By that time, they would have obtained their adult plumage.

Often referred to as “flightless” birds, although they do not fly in the air, we were told that penguins certainly can fly through water. They use their flippers to propel themselves, and they can dive hundreds of feet to get their prey.

Despite trying to stay clear of these comical-looking creatures, there are so many of them that I often came face to face with one on its way to and from the seashore. Often, they would be carrying a piece of scrap vegetation to bring back to their nest.

The most amusing sights were the gangs of penguins journeying together. A slow-moving bunch of them would waddle across my path. I found it hard not to laugh at their gentle side-to-side movement as they walked on their short stumpy legs. It seemed to me that they relished each other’s company during their otherwise mundane daily activities.

Going to the water’s edge seemed to be a “group affair”. At the water’s edge, hundreds lined up and en masse would hop into the water and bathe.

They look cute, but these penguins are infested with their species of fleas, which will also bite humans. So, the caution to not touch these adorable tuxedos patterned creatures is good advice.

One feisty penguin seemed to have had enough of our group of visitors disturbing their nesting activities. I came upon one poor man being chased by an indignant penguin, only to find myself fleeing from the same plucky creature as it turned its fury on me. I found myself trying to escape it – a bit humbling and humiliating experience – especially as the other visitors in our group laughed and took videos of me trying to outrun the chicken-sized bird. My real fear, truly, was that this comical scene would end up on YouTube.

Text & Photos Cammy Yiu