Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Kings of Tierra del Fuego

Almost everybody who visits Patagonia hopes to see penguins. Every once in a while, passengers on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales will spot one in the water, but most visitors prefer close-ups at nesting sites like Otway Sound or Isla Magdalena (pictured above), near the city of Punta Arenas. There, from October to March, Magellanic penguins and their newborn chicks (pictured below) become the subjects of countless photographs.
There’s a new option and even more interesting option, though. Since 2009, a swarm of colorful king penguins has begun to colonize a site at Bahía Inútil (“Useless Bay”), across the Strait of Magellan on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. These resemble the giant emperor penguins that paraded across the Antarctic in “March of the Penguins,” but they are somewhat smaller and lead a less arduous life, though they still forage hundreds of miles in search of food for their chicks.
Getting to the king penguin colony, which is now a private nature reserve called Parque Pingüino Rey, is a bigger time commitment than the Magellanic colonies, one of which is barely an hour from Punta Arenas. It requires a two-hour ferry ride to the town of Porvenir and another two hours overland to reach Bahía Inútil, and a return to the continent via the more northerly crossing at Primera Angostura.
That, in effect, makes it a full-day excursion to spend about an hour or so with the kings, which I did recently with a local tour company. Another advantage to the trip is that some birds stay at Bahía Inútil all year, though the size of the colony varies. It’s been as large at 150, though there were about 75 when I went in mid-March. Wooden blinds keep human visitors from approaching too closely, but also offer protection from strong winds.
While I have my own car here, I was pleased I didn’t drive. In the first instance, the freight for the vehicle would have cost me nearly as much as the excursion did. In the second instance, I probably would have driven north to the Primera Angostura crossing where, as it turned out, high winds had shut down the ferry shuttle with the continent and left an eight-km line of vehicles waiting to board without knowing when the service might resume.

Because of this, the driver told us, we could return to Punta Arenas via Porvenir, where the ferry Pathagon’s departure had been delayed, instead of going to Primera Angostura. This, however, required unanimous consent from all 17 of us, since the tour included a visit to the company town of Cerro Sombrero before returning via the northern crossing. All the Spanish speakers agreed, and I had to interpret for the English-speakers, including three Taiwanese whose fluency was not completely clear.

Not making the ferry would have complicated matters, as Porvenir (population 6,000) and Sombrero (about 700) are the only towns on the Chilean side of the island, and have very limited accommodation. Fortunately, the large and comfortable Pathagon (pictured above and below, it's literally a huge improvement on its predecessors) could handle the wider section of the Strait easily, and we returned by 9 p.m., in time for dinner. Nobody who saw the kings, though, was disappointed after the long day.

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