Penguins make for a laughing good visit


By Nic Black

Two of the largest penguin colonies in southern Chile are just outside Punta Arenas, the capital of Region XII. Each year in the springand summer the penguins return from the chilly waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to breed and raise their young.

From December to February Magellanic penguins, which get their name from the Magallanes region in which they breed (named after a Spanish captain who explored the straits), can be seen in abundance at the Seno
Otway (Otway Sound) penguin colony and the colony on Isla Magdalene. Both sites offer excellent penguin viewing where visitors can approach to within a few feet of the breeding birds.

The Magellanic penguin is a large bird (3.5-4.5 kgs) and can inflict a nasty bite if provoked or harassed. Therefore, it is suggested to give the penguins plenty of space and never cross the boundaries of the designated breeding area. A camera with a powerful lens or a pair of binoculars will supply all the necessary viewing power. Be assured that the playful and humorous nature of the penguins will make for a very enjoyable wildlife encounter.

During my stay in Punta Arenas I decided to view the penguins from the more accessible, land based Seno Otway colony. Prices vary, so ask your hostel, hospedaje or hotel manager and shop around.

A tour of the Seno Otway colony is self-guided, so getting there is your only concern. There are numerous tour operators in Punta Arenas providing transportation to and from the colony, and prices vary quite a bit – from 4,000 to 7,000 pesos (US$7-12) per person. Entrance to the colony is currently 2,000 pesos (US$3.50) per person.

Many Punta Arenas tour operators, both for penguin viewing and sea kayaking, have offices east of Plaza Munoz Gamero near the intersection of Lautaro Navarro and Pedro Montt.

The tour to Isla Magdalena is considered to be better than the Seno Otway tour because of the larger number of penguins there. However, the island is only reachable by boat and so makes for a pricier tour. In
addition, tours there only go on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, departing from Tres Puentes Terminal at 3:30 p.m. and returning at 9 p.m. the same day. The cost of the tour for one adult is US$30, US$15 for children.

Magellanic penguins are naturally curious creatures and are extremely tame. Because the penguins allow visitors to approach very close, one can observe their silly and playful behavior. The penguins usually move through the colony in large groups, making for a follow-the-leader type parade. They follow worn trails as if their kindergarten class was out on a field trip.

It’s hilarious to see a succession of penguins jump a small boulder only to land flat footed and come up reeling and rocking like a weeble-wobble. Their awkwardness on land, reflected in hopping movements, will make even the most serious people smile, and the naturally funny burst out laughing.

Conversely, penguins are impressive swimmers and exit the water with immense power. When visiting the penguin colonies, remember to respect the friendly nature of the birds and never provoke one. Several
over zealous people have people victims of penguin bites and were painfully reminded that the comedians of the poles are still wild.