Stories from the Amazon

  • penguins up close
    A pair of Magellan Penguins walk towards the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Argentina at the San Lorenzo reserve, left.

    Visitors get up close to penguins on the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina, right.

    A Close Encounter With the Penguins of South America

    The sun seems to burn brighter in Patagonia.

    “The scientists say the ozone is thinner in Patagonia,” Claudia Hume said. Hume was my host and personal guide for my stay in Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

    To my untrained eye, it looked to be true.

    For sure, the penguins that stood in the sun in front of me would probably also agree as they attempted to keep cool in the intense light.

    nesting penguins
    A parent and a penguin chick escape the intensity of the sun in their burrow at the San Lorenzo penguin colony on the coast of Argentina.

    The Magellanic penguins are found on the southern coasts of South America and are named after Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who spotted the birds in 1520.

    These cute little sea birds grow to be about 2 feet tall and weigh between 6 and 14 pounds. This weight can vary, depending on whether they have a full stomach of food they are bringing for their chicks.

    For me, a visit to the Henrly Doorly Zoo in Omaha always included a stop by the penguin exhibit. To see them in the wild, by the thousands, is a whole different experience.

    penguins line up on the shore
    Magellanic penguins line the beach in South America.

    With the help of a friend, I was invited to visit the Estancia San Lorenzo, a location that shelters a reproduction colony of Magellanic penguins. The estancia, or ranch, sits on the shores of the San Matías Gulf, inside the Punta Norte area on the Valdés Peninsula. The entire peninsula is a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the best places to see wildlife in Argentina.

    Every year, from August until March, around 200,000 breeding pairs of penguins continue their life cycle at the Estancia San Lorenzo colony. They nest, breed, mate and wait for their eggs to hatch. Both parents feed the young and teach them basic strategies to become independent in the sea.

    “The penguins mate for life, and come back to the same location year after year,” Hume explained. “The male reclaims his burrow from the previous year and waits to reconnect with his female partner.”

    penguin walking on the beach
    A Magellanic penguin walks towards the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Argentina at the San Lorenzo reserve.

    As far as my eye could see in the scrub brush, penguins stood guard over nests and the two chicks they housed. The nests were built under bushes or in burrows. By mid-January, the chicks had grown considerably but were still covered with gray fuzz.

    The parents take turn at sea, for sometimes as long as two weeks, where each one fills its stomach with fish and squid. When it returns, the two chicks pester the parent nonstop for the rich food its stomach holds.

    One of the current challenges for Magellanic penguins is the impact climatic change is having on food supplies. Researchers have discovered the penguins have to go farther to find food, and some apparently don’t make it back before the chicks and the other parent have starved to death.

    One of the best moments with the penguins was watching a fat parent as it waddled up from the blue ocean across the tan sand with a full stomach. It stepped from one side to the other and looked like it was almost going to topple over. One penguin was so full, it just lay down on its stomach and rested for a couple of moments before jumping back up and continuing its march toward the nest.

    penguin chicks feeding
    A pair of hungry young penguins look for a meal.

    Walking around as a guest of the penguins found me face-to-face within an arm’s reach of these smartly dressed birds. As I approached a penguin, it would cock its head back and forth out of curiosity. It was like it was trying to size up what kind of penguin I was. Eventually, it would close its eyes and go back to sleep.

    I kept my close encounters brief, not wanting to add more stress to an already stressed parent. The penguins at San Lorenzo are habituated but are still wild, which allows for a personal and up-close encounter with one of nature’s adorable creatures.

    “I’ve never seen it but would like to, when in March and the time is right all the juveniles will enter the sea at the same time. Off they go, learning how to swim and survive,” Hume said. “Overnight the beach becomes empty until next August, when the cycle continues once again.”

    I’d like to see that, too.

    Dean up close with penguins
    Dean encountering penguins up close.

    Fremont Tribune

Copyright © Dean Jacobs 2019. All Rights Reserved.