Day seven: Puerto Madryn (February 20)

My favorite day so far! We docked in the city of Puerto Madryn which is on Peninsula Valdés in northeastern Patagonia, about half way down the Argentine coast. The whole peninsula is a UNESCO world heritage site, actually, due to the abundance of wildlife.

We drove out of the city of 100,000 past the aluminum plant and fishing boats (squid is their best catch) headed to Punta Tombo, the largest penguin nesting ground in South America. It is home to upwards of two million Magellanic penguins from September to March each year. It was a two and a half hour drive through a flat, dry, windy landscape with low lying scruffy brush. Our guide explained that the Pacific winds go west to east and drop all their moisture in the Chilean Andes. By the time the wind gets to Argentina’s Patagonia, it is as dry as a bone and the soil and thirsty looking vegetation certainly attest to that.

We learned that Welsh pioneers settled here first, in 1865, at the invitation of the Argentine government. These pioneers had a tough start but within ten years they had devised an irrigation system and managed to produce wheat as a cash crop. Then came a railway and then other Europeans decided to go for it and started to arrive. To this day Wales is proud of the small Welsh towns in the area.

The Punta Tombo rookery is actually on a privately owned ranch homesteaded by an Italian family 100 years ago. They noticed more and more penguins over the years and brought it to the attention of the government. Although privately owned, it is protected today and opened as a park in 1979.

We really fell for these cute little guys that come each August from Antarctica to breed. The males arrive first and hang around the shore waiting for their mates. The couples spend September getting reacquainted, flirting, and cleaning out their burrows. Then they ‘get busy’ if ya follow me. Two eggs are laid … four days apart. Boom: 40 and 44 days later the chicks hatch.

Along with all these migrating penguins come loads of birds, foxes, and armadillos with one thing on their minds: feeding on eggs as well as the chicks of unlucky, inexperienced, and negligent parents. If all goes according to plan though, both parents incubate the eggs rotating in/out of the water to eat. Once the chicks arrive the parents take turns regurgitating semi-digested fish. Both chicks are fed but the first born is fed first and the second born gets what’s left. In January when the chicks are three months old, waterproof feathers start to replace their down. Pretty soon they are ready to enter the water and get with the swimming lessons. When the babies, who by now have grown like little weeds and are pretty much the size of adults, are skilled swimmers, they head north to Uruguay with a few adult females as chaperones. 15-20 years = life span.

In Punta Tombo, there is a long path and a few wooden overpasses set aside for human visitors. The penguins are literally everywhere. The babies had already begun their swim to Uruguay, so we saw mostly adults who were in the process of getting their new 2016 feathers. Little parades were waddling Charlie Chaplin style to and from the water to feed. Some pairs (they mate for life) were grooming one another, others seemed to be hanging out in the shade provided by scrub brush and the overpasses we walked on, and others were resting on their bellies in their burrows which are small holes in the ground. The best burrows had been dug underneath a scruffy shrub and were protected from wind, sun, and rain. The also-rans in the burrow world were dug out of the barren dirt and looked like pot holes open to the elements. I am clueless how they manage to return to the same nest each year, but we were told they do.

We walked the length of the path, which ended at the waters edge, where there were thousands of them just milling around. They did not approach us, but they didn’t waddle off fearfully either. By the end of next month the adults will head north to Uruguay to meet up with the youngsters. When the sea gods dictate they’ll all migrate to Antarctica where they’ll not set foot on dry land again until they return to Punta Tombo in September.

It might seem like a poor investment time wise to drive two and a half hours each way to spend two hours with penguins, but we thought it well worth it. It was such fun! We enjoyed boxed lunches on the ride back to Puerto Madryn. Our bus driver was long and lean with a chiseled face and reminded me of the quintessential tango dancer.

Near our ship were numerous large, old, rusted out fishing vessels. Apparently they were caught illegally fishing in Argentine waters, refused to pay the fine, abandoned ship, and just went on home. The coast guard or navy or someone towed the vessels to shore and parked them in a cluster hear the dock.

We talked penguins through cocktails and dinner and then enjoyed the entertainment and headed to bed after a great day.

Happy 60th Deb!


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