It’s approaching spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and that means that migratory penguins are returning to their Patagonian nesting sites in Argentina, Chile, and the Falkland Islands. From Argentina’s Península Valdés, all the way around Cape Horn to the Pacific archipelago of Chiloé, Magellanic penguins - colloquially known as “Jackass penguins” because of their braying call - are the most abundant and easiest species to spot, but determined or fortunate penguin seekers may also see several other species at various locales.
Península Valdés is a prime wildlife site because of the whale-watching industry at the hamlet of Puerto Pirámides, but there are also several colonies of the migratory Magellanics scattered around the reserve. Occasionally, though, startled visitors even find themselves swimming with penguins in the shallow waters just off Pirámides’ beach (usually in summer, after the right whales have returned to the open Atlantic. Most visitors, though, go to the colony of Magellanics at Punta Tombo, south of the Atlantic beach resort of Puerto Madryn, where hundreds of thousands of Magellanics waddle ashore to mate, hatch their eggs, and raise their chicks before returning to the ocean in March or April. Occasionally there’s a surprise - last season, for instance, a wandering king penguin (not the one pictured here) made its appearance.
Other good Argentine sites for penguin-watching include Bahía Bustamante, Puerto Deseado, Parque Nacional Monte León, and Cabo Vírgenes. Puerto Deseado makes a particularly interesting detour because it’s the gateway to Isla de los Pingüinos, which has not just Magellanics but also the world’s northernmost colony of rockhopper penguins. Elsewhere along the continental coast, rockies are a rare sight, as they are most abundant in the Falklands.
In southernmost Chile, the most accessible penguin-watching sites are at Otway Sound, barely 45 minutes overland from the city of Punta Arenas. Isla Magdalena, in the Strait of Magellan, is a little harder to reach but worth the effort because the ferry voyage there is an opportunity to view Commerson’s dolphins, black-browed albatrosses, and many other seabirds that nest on the island. Across the Strait, on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, the historic Estancia Harberton conducts trips to offshore Isla Martillo, where a small but growing colony of gentoo penguins (pictured to the right) shares the island with much larger numbers of breeding Magellanics. For visitors to the city of Ushuaia, this is the best opportunity to see gentoos (which are not migratory) without continuing to Antarctica (more than 90 percent of Antarctica-bound cruises leave from Ushuaia).
On Chile’s Pacific coast, near the city of Ancud in the Chiloé archipelago, the offshore Isla Puñihuil is particularly interesting because it’s where Magellanic and Humboldt penguins - which look very similar - overlap their ranges and breed almost side by side. The Humboldt’s range, though, stretches north through Chile and into Peru.
The Falkland Islands, meanwhile, are more expensive to get to, and to get around, but dedicated penguin watchers will find it much easier to observe gentoos, kings (Volunteer Point, at Johnson’s Harbour ranch, has a huge breeding colony), and rockhoppers as well as rarer macaroni penguins (pictured here) that breed among the rockhoppers in a few sites. Occasionally, as well, a wandering chinstrap penguin - they are most abundant in Antarctica - will put in an appearance among the gentoos.