A Purest Naan
Punta Arenas is in the Chilean province of "Magellanes and Antarctica", on the edge of the windswept straits of Magellan. It is on the Brunswick Peninsula, the tip of which, Cabo Froward, is the Southernmost point of mainland South America. Punta Arenas is lined with actual stone buildings, as a nice change from Puerto Natales, and is more industrial too. The main attraction for tourists, however, are the local penguin colonies, the largest of which is on Isla Magdalena in the middle of the straits.
The island is home to over 120,000 Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus, latin-lovers), distinguishable by their black backs and white stomachs, with two black bands between the head and the breast, as well as a broad white border running from behind the eye. They also have a pink area around their eyes.
To get to the island means taking a tour as it is a protected nature reserve, and so we crammed into the tiny passenger space of the Valparaiso ro-ro for the thankfully calm 2-hour journey, with the undulating hills of the North shore of Tierra del Fuego to our South. The only thing separating them from the sea and sky was a different haze of blue.
The island is mad with penguins - a memory card full of penguin pairs (that´s the official collective noun, by the way) and their offspring in various stages of losing their puppy fluff. Humans were outnumbered by about 600 to 1. With their black and white suits, they weeble-wobbled their way below the red and white stripes of the obsolete lighthouse. Grooming each other and cocking their heads for photos, they welcomed us to their breeding ground.
The adults grow to be about 2 and a half feet tall and live for about 25 years in the wild. These penguins are monogamous, with males reclaiming the same burrow year after year, then waiting to hook up with their partners.
Despite their numbers, they are listed as "Near Threatened", mainly because of their habit of clustering in large colonies making them vulnerable to large-scale disasters such as oil spills. Mind, they´re a lot less vulnerable than they used to be, when passing explorers would raid the island for fresh meat and eggs - "20,000 McPenguins to go, please."
Back on the boat, we returned to Pubta Arenas between swells of fishing penguins bobbing like Malibu surfers in the waves. Almost back to shore, we were joined by 3 black and white Austral dolphins skipping in the wake of the boat.
In the town there is a small but fascinating naval and maritime museum (no kidding - we are in Antarctic exploration territory here), which houses an exhibition on Shackleton´s aborted Endurance expedition. Although his feats of leadership and survival are legendary, the bravery of the crew of the Yelcho, a Chilean tug of doubtful seaworthiness in pack ice, in taking him back to pick up his stranded crew is little documented anywhere else. Shackleton´s own account barely gives them 2 lines.
Next stop - Ushuaia: The end of the world!