Just say the word penguin and your mouth forms into a smile. (Try it. See!)
We humans love these fearless, flightless birds in tuxedos, waddling around on two feet (like us) looking like they’d like to come over for a chat.
Seeing a colony of Magellanic penguins was one of the very best experiences on the four-day cruise Magellan and I did in Patagonia.
Yes, the penguins we saw are named after Magellan. Ferdinand that is, who was in these same waters in 1520. We were on a small ship, the Expedition Cruise Stella Australis, and observed the rookery of penguins at Tuckers Islets from zodiacs.
Magellanic penguins are small, reaching only fifty-to-seventy centimetres and weighing just five kilos as adults. At birth, they weigh only 140 grams, about the same as an apple.
And guess who tends that egg (sometimes there are two, on rare occasions three) while it incubates for two months?
He doesn’t sit on the eggs, he balances them on top of his feet, barely moving during the incubation period. The whole colony of males congregates together at this time for protection. And male company I suppose, as the females during this time are the “fishwinners,” swimming out in the Magellan Straits and bringing home anchovies and sardines for their mates.
The males play an unusual role in the courting stage, too.
Magellanic penguins go on holiday in March, migrating north 3,000 kilometres to the warmth of Brazil or Equador. In September, the males return to Patagonia. Those who are three or four years old and in the courting stage of life, take great care in building a nest, trying to outdo each other in architectural design and interior decoration in order to attract females, who arrive a little later. Tuckers Islet is a colony of 10,000 penguins so there’s lots of competition for mating.
We couldn’t see the nests, which are small burrows lodged in the ground around tufts of dense, Patagonian grass. But we could see why a female penguin would want a well-designed home. She’d want the nest to be sheltered from those fierce, Patagonia winds. Away from the shore to avoid their main predators, sea lions. Protected as much as possible from large birds swooping down to devour her eggs, or her fledgling chicks, who don’t go to sea until they’re about forty-five days old.
Penguins are monogamous, mating for life, which means these pairs celebrate about sixteen anniversaries.
When the chicks are born, mom and dad both become fishwinners, leaving their chicks and travelling as far as fifty kilometres a day for baby food. It’s easy to see why only a third of the second-born chicks survive.
Swimming eight kilometres per hour, Magellanic penguins aren’t fast. But they’re superb divers and can charge down 80 metres to capture breakfast, lunch or dinner.
From the zodiacs (which the crew at Stella Australis keep at a fair distance from shore so as not to stress the penguins), we could hear their noisy chatter, which has been described as being like a donkey’s bray.
It was fascinating to see the similarity of their elegant black-and-white plumage to the cormorants nearby.
We learned all this stuff about Magellanic penguins from the onboard talk and while we were drifting about in the zodiacs. In my diary, I found two exotic things about the glands of these charming birds that you may find interesting. (1) The plumage of a Magellanic penguin is like a duvet secreted with a water-proof oil from its uropigial gland, which makes it comfy for them to sleep in 4° water. (2) The salt that they ingest from seawater is concentrated in another gland in in their bodies and released every time they sneeze.
As the afternoon light began to fade and the zodiac sped toward the Stella Australis, our heads turned back to Tuckers Islet, wanting to hold on to the sight of these marvelous birds until the wake of the sea spray and the distance between us blurred the sight of their little bodies flapping what seemed like good-byes.
While we’re not cruise afficiandos, we thoroughly enjoyed The Stella Australis as a way to see the glaciers and penguins in Patagonia and visit Cape Horn.