Sunday, 26 October 2014

‘P-p-picture a penguin…’: A journey to Tierra del Fuego, Chile

A childhood dream

Throughout a spell in my childhood they appeared on the TV almost nightly, advertising a chocolate covered biscuit which we were exhorted to ‘p-p-pick up’ when we were a bit ‘p-p-peckish’: the king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus). I, like millions of other British kids, fell in love with the cute, comical-looking birds waddling about as if bedecked in morning suits. I never imagined that I would ever see them in the wild, as they are endemic to the southern hemisphere and inhabit far away islands at the other end of the world deep in the South Atlantic: the Falklands and South Georgia, and the even more remote and inhospitable Antarctica. Until fairly recently.

Last November I found myself in Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia, and learned that a colony had established itself on the island of Tierra del Fuego, at a sheep ranch in Bahia Inútil. To my surprise, I discovered that since 2011 tourists had been permitted to visit this colony which now lay but half a day's journey from me. Availing of the chance of a lifetime, Martin and I booked a mini bus trip there with a local tour company costing around $US 80 each, the price of which included a visit to the penguin colony, two ferry tickets, entry to a museum and transportation to and from our hotel.

On a chilly late November morning, just after dawn, we set off along with several other tourists in a battered old mini bus with dodgy rear suspension, for the Tres Puentes car ferry just outside Punta Arenas. The two and a half hour crossing to Bahía Chilota around 5km from Porvenir, a small town settled by Croatians in 1883, took us across the famous Strait of Magellan which joins the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The crossing was comfortable due to the lack of wind and swell on this notoriously fickle stretch of water, although the air temperature was so low it was too cold to remain on deck for any length of time. The most memorable aspect of the voyage was the incredible cloud formations: a line of lurid backlit sky on the horizon, above which gunmetal grey clouds swirled in eerie nodules that reminded me of the skies in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Bahía Chilota sits astride a desolate stretch of flat land, one of the more conspicuous buildings visible as you pass through the narrow entrance into the harbour being a bright yellow church, which added a welcome splash of colour on an erstwhile drab day. We disembarked as foot passengers, passing a sign warning of the dangers of toxic red algae and not to pick the shellfish along the coast, before being reunited with our minibus. We then drove the short distance to the bleak, frontier town of Porvenir with its depressing hotchpotch of shabby coloured buildings, to the Fernando Cordero Rusque Municipal Museum, denoted by its landmark circular astronomical observation tower outside.


The sad fate of the Fuegians

The museum has an eclectic mix of exhibits related to life in the region. Considerable attention is devoted to indigenous flora and fauna, including the aboriginal inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, which make for uncomfortable viewing if you are European. The native Fuegians belonged to several tribes including the Ona (Selk’nam), Haush (Manek’enk), Yaghan (Yámana) and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). The arrival of Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century saw the introduction of devastating diseases such as measles and smallpox to which the Fuegians had no immunity. Land grabs for ranching and gold mining, coupled with a deliberate policy of extermination of the indigenous peoples by settlers, resulted in the decimation of the Fuegians’ hunting grounds, cultures and languages, and their populations plummeted from several thousand in the nineteenth century to mere hundreds in the twentieth. Their sad fate seemed to be encapsulated in the mummified remains of a female called ‘Kela’ who died about 1424 in her early 30s. Her body was found in a cave on Tres Mogotes, a small island off Tierra del Fuego in 1974, but it is not known what culture she belonged to. Tourists leering at her grisly remains in a glass case filled me with sadness and shame. It seemed so utterly improper.

Leaving the museum we were taken to a site just above the coastline where a viciously cold onshore wind blew across the landscape. It felt like a hole was being ripped in the very fabric of history itself, for here stood a line of wooden statues of men, women and children wrapped in animal skin cloaks and bearing spears, staring through sightless eyes into the far distance, walking inexorably to their ultimate fate. They represent the Selk’nam nation, whose people were hunted like animals to virtual extinction by European settlers. It wasn’t just the cold wind that made me shiver at the sight of these carvings. They reminded me greatly of the statues erected at the Custom House Quay in Dublin’s Docklands in memory of another group of history’s hapless victims: the Irish who perished in their hundreds of thousands during the 1840s famine. Little remains of the Selk’nam nation today: some dusty artefacts in the nearby museum, this poignant line of statues and a sun-faded wooden plaque with peeling varnish, mere curiosities for passing tourists…

Plenty of food for thought on the long journey (almost 130 km) along bumpy gravel tracks through the bleak, flat, wind blasted landscape that comprises the northern part of the island of Tierra del Fuego, ‘The Land of Fire’. The name derives from the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to visit this region in 1520, who, from sea, beheld the impressive sight of many fires lit by the Yaghan nation. The southern part of the island is mountainous and densely forested, where firewood would have been aplenty, but the penguin colony is sited on a treeless stretch of land on a sheep ranch at Bahia Inútil (Usless Bay), a name supposedly coined by nineteenth century British geographers because it was not suitable as a port. Life here is undoubtedly hard and marginal, illustrated by the abandoned remains of several old homesteads and a windswept crumbling cemetery we saw on the way. I spotted a few herds of guanacos (Patagonian llamas) and some flamingos on a brackish lake in the distance, but most of the fauna consisted solely of woolly Corriedale sheep.

P-p-picture a penguin!

The lack of native fauna makes the sight of the king penguins all the more impressive. El Parque Pingüino Rey is a 125-acre plot on the 25,000-acre Estancia San Clemente, owned by Alejandro Fernández Vogelhummer and his family. We arrived there to be greeted by a tame grey fox belonging to the family which accompanied us towards the somewhat incongruous sight of a lime green geodesic tent sheltered from the wind by some white plastic sheeting. Here we signed the visitors’ book and were told a little about the penguin colony, the only continental breeding site in the Americas and the most accessible king penguin colony in the world.

The king penguin is second only in size to the Emperor penguin which can be found in Antarctica. Historically, king penguins have been present along various parts of the Austral coast; archaeological sites dating back 6,000 years reveal the presence of their bones. But these penguin colonies were consigned to the pages of history, scared away no doubt by European settler activities, until a number of the birds decided to reclaim their old turf around a decade ago, clustering at the mouth of the Marazzi River at Bahia Inútil. Their numbers increased year on year; courtship behaviour was observed and the birds finally started to breed here in 2012. When we visited, there were about 100 penguins present and the numbers were expected to grow.

The king penguin breeding cycle begins in November at the start of the southern hemisphere summer, when the female king penguin lays her first egg. The chick takes 55 days to hatch, then stays with its parents for 11 months. Once the chick is independent, the female must complete her moult before laying again, this time in late autumn. As a result, the king penguin’s breeding cycle takes 18 months and moves in and out of phase with the calendar year. Male and female king penguins look identical and they share the task of incubating a single egg. Instead of building a nest, they cradle the egg on their broad webbed feet, where it is kept warm in a brood pouch. The bodies of king penguins are protected from the cold by short, densely-packed feathers and a thick layer of blubber. They feed mainly on fish and squid found in the cold waters of the Southern Atlantic. At sea they are predated by seals; on land skuas snatch eggs and chicks, while the mink, a carnivorous introduced species, poses a significant threat to this colony.  

A small group of us made our way towards a grassy spit between a river channel and the seashore, beyond which lay the steel grey waters of Bahia Inútil, framed by a line of snowy mountains on the horizon. Visitor numbers are strictly limited to the colony and we had to keep a specified distance demarcated by a rope, so as not to disturb them. Borne on the wind, I could hear snatches of a strange, trumpeting sound. And suddenly, there they were! In the tussocky grass strewn with yellow flowers on the far bank of the channel we spot dozens of them. Some stood huddled together like statues or were busy preening themselves, occasionally flapping their wings or bending their heads backwards on seemingly elastic necks as they pointed their beaks heavenward to emit the unusual sound we could hear; others looking amazingly plump were lying down oblivious to the surrounding birds and a few adventurous ones were clambering into and out of the water, either returning from, or going fishing, in the bay.

The sight of these three feet high birds brought a broad smile to my face. They looked vaguely humanoid with their bipedal waddle and slightly comical too, as if decked out in fancy dress: oversized black wellie boots with webbed feet; a large, blue-black tailcoat with a long white shirt; a conspicuous, yellow-orange necktie and a black and deep orange face mask! Several birds appeared to be moulting and we could see their discarded feathers caught in the grass alongside the river bank. Moulting is a period of hunger for the penguin, as it cannot put to sea until it has a set of fully intact and functioning feathers. We laughed as one tobogganed down the river bank into the water with a loud splash, and giggled at the odd sly peck and occasional ‘trumpet voluntary’ as one of the birds returned from the sea to join in a huddle. I noticed a couple of the birds had a bloody smudge on their pristine white feathers. Our guide, a PhD candidate in biology who had worked at the colony studying the penguin’s behaviour, told me that these wounds were likely to have been incurred during a seal attack.

We then moved further towards the shore to a shingly beach strewn with brown seaweed. Here one of the birds put on a Charlie Chaplinesque display for us as it waddled round comically as if showing off, periodically flapping its wings and lifting its orange striped beak skywards to trumpet between spells of intense preening. I was struck by how dapper these birds are, quite beautiful in fact, with their blue-black, white and saffron yellow symmetrically patterned feathers.

We were loath to leave, but having spent well over an hour and a half there, we were beginning to feel decidedly chilly. There followed a long journey to a ferry at Bahia Azul for the 20 minute crossing back to the mainland. En route we passed through Cerro Sombrero, a bleak ‘one horse’ oil town with a toblerone-shaped church, a large building with a multi-coloured façade which looked like a Cubist painting, and a huge statue of an oil worker in front of three enormous glass buildings resembling huge greenhouses. Indeed, one had a tropical garden inside.

The crossing of the Strait of Magellan was rougher than the one we had taken earlier. The skies had cleared to the deepest blue and the sun was shining, yet it was bitterly cold on deck. We, however, couldn’t resist the urge to brave the chill to watch huge waves slamming into the hull of the ferry sending clouds of spray all over the cars on the deck.


I felt incredibly privileged to have been able to see king penguins in the wild, something I had dreamt about ever since I was a child. And it was great to know that these birds, which had been driven from Tierra del Fuego by human activity, had returned to reclaim their territory. Moreover, this tenacious little colony is now being protected by the local ranchers. A story with a happy ending. Unfortunately, unlike the king penguins, the indigenous Fuegians, whose land this once was, will never return because of the cupidity and ignorance of Europeans who drove them to extinction. A truly sad and sorry chapter in the annals of Latin American and indeed, human history.