Saturday, March 11, 2017

Wednesday, February 22nd: Los Pengüinos!

The biggest disappointment about being unable to make it to Rio Gallegos was we weren't going to get to take the hike to the bluff overlooking a big penguin colony. I soooo wanted to see pingüinos! When we got to the new hotel I'd booked on our way back to Ushuaia, we got back online and looked into those boat tours that take you past islands where penguins roost. Not quite as good as seeing them from a trail, but better then nothing. Then we discovered that there is one company that offers a "walk with the penguins" tour. It's a tightly controlled trip to see penguins with only 20 people at a time allowed on the island with a guide. We hustled down to the port to book our spots and fortunately they still had a few spaces for the morning group. We had an early cup of coffee in bed that morning and then headed to catch the bus.
For 90 minutes, we drove up over the mountains again and then peeled off Ruta 3 onto Ruta J, a graveled side road that leads to Estancia Harberton. Everyone in the group seemed reasonably agreeable except an entitled Belgian couple we dubbed the Asshats. They complained about the cold on the bus and insisted our guides turn on the bus heater even though it was explained to them that it might fog the windows. Couldn't they just put on the coats they'd brought like everyone else? No! And yet, they rode on the outside of the boat once we were on it, where it was much colder than on the bus.
Lenga trees that have been shaped by high winds are referred to as árboles banderas, because they lean away from the wind like flags. We talked for a little while to our two guides Santiago (Santi) and Augustín. Both very friendly and knowledgeable and happy to tell us about hikes we might like in the area.
Estancias in Argentina are huge ranches, usually with sheep or cattle, covering thousands of acres. The 50,000 acre Estancia Harberton happened to include coast along the Beagle Channel and several small islands, including Isla Martillo with two penguin colonies.  Although they now rent out  some of their land to other farmers for grazing their sheep, most of the income on the estancia is due to tourism.
When we arrived, our half of the group went first to Isla Martillo with Augustín. We took a zodiac out to the island and spent an hour.
And sure enough, there were plenty of penguins.
The island has a colony of 800 Gentoo penguins, which live there year-round.
And some 4900 Magellanic penguins, who migrate north when the winter hits.
Biologists at Harberton studied these penguins for five years to assess impact of human presence on the flocks. They continue to study that with these small group tours.  Their research shows that with limited human contact on the island, the colonies are thriving. We were told not to approach too closely, to move very slowly, and not to touch them. However, in the unlikely event that a penguin approached us, that was okay.
The penguins seemed mildly curious and a few did indeed come closer when we sat very still. Penguins sneeze to clear saline from their bodies and once when I sniffed in the cold, the penguin closest to me turned his head and leaned in with interest.
Although I do the vast majority of the photography on our trips, my husband couldn't resist getting out his phone to take pictures.
Because how cute are they?
I loved the Gentoos' bright orange feet.
They have few predators here, although sea lions can come up onto the shore and eat them.  In less protected area, they are sometimes snapped up by orcas.
Part of the time, I put my camera down and just watched them.
Penguins load up on weight before molting because they can't go into the water to catch food during their molt.
Once they have molted and their new feathers have grown in, they keep them waterproofed by getting oil from a gland on their lower back with their beaks and spreading it on their feathers.
There was a tiny live baby centolla on the pebbly beach. I guess at that stage it was a prince crab instead of a king crab. I wanted to warn it to steer clear of the traps when it got older.
In both species, males and females typically mate for life and share nesting duties. Fatness (which the female can discern by the deepness of the male's voice) means an ability to sit longer on a nest and is desirable in a mate.
Often, it almost seemed like the penguins were posing.
This one seemed sleepy, but kept re-opening his eye to check on me. The Gentoos were shyer than the Magellanic.
Ho hum, just another day at the end of the world, hanging out with our penguin pals. Okay, we were both giddy being so close to all those penguins.
Mr. Asshat chided another group member for getting in the way of his photo and Mrs. Asshat chimed in with complaints. Penguins in every direction, but they HAD to have that one shot.
Later, when I was sitting on the ground quietly watching a penguin approach me, Mr. Asshat strode up quickly and noisily (both against the rules) and scared him away. Again - almost 6000 penguins and he just HAD to go after the one I was with?
While this penguin posed for a photo, two of his mates were having a spat behind him.
I'm not sure what the penguin was doing with this bit of kelp. They mostly eat fish and krill.
Cuteness overload!!!
A male and female pair of upland geese, one species of many that were completely new to me.
We also walked up into the island to see the burrows. Both Magellanic and Gentoo penguins lay two eggs. However, the Magellenic have almost a 100% survival rate because they dig burrows and are protected from predators. Gentoos did not evolve with burrowing skills because most of the species live further south where the ground is too frozen to dig. Because of their exposure to predators, only 50% of the chicks survive.
There were a few still minding their nests, some of them because they were in the process of molting and wanted that extra protection.
Females judge the males on burrow depth and choose their mates accordingly. If the female isn't pleased with the burrow she may switch to a mate with a better home. If a burrow gets destroyed, a penguin will sometimes steal another's burrow.  It's a tough world out there.
The penguins are safer on land - seals prey on penguins but don't have back legs that allow them to walk on land and so only eat them in water.
The hour passed too quickly and we had to say goodbye to the colonies.
We got back onto the zodiac and headed into the channel to return to the estancia.
The first cormorant I saw made me do a double take - I thought for a strange moment that I was seeing a flying penguin.
We took the zodiac back to the mainland and had a cup of rum-laced hot chocolate in the cafe overlooking the bay then found a spot in the sun to have the picnic we had brought with us.
Estancia Harberton was established in 1886, when the missionary pioneer Thomas Bridges resigned from Ushuaia's Anglican mission. The estancia was named for the home of his wife, Mary Ann Varder, in Devon, England.
The current manager and part-owner is Thomas Bridges’s great-grandson. He now runs the estancia with his American wife, who is a biologist.
The estancia includes a marine museum which has the skeletons of many species of Antarctic animals.
The whale skeletons were too big to fit inside the museum and look like sculptures in the grass.
When the second group returned from Isla Martillo, we all boarded this little yacht to ride the 2 1/2 hours back along the Beagle Channel to Puerta Ushuaia.
It was windy and we sat inside watching the various birds flying by and talking with Augustín (when he wasn't narrating passing wildlife) about life in Ushuaia, and politics, both US and Argentine. Augustín told us that as a younger man he'd gone to law school in Buenos Aires and was always stressed. Then he'd returned home to Ushuaia and loved his work as a guide. He talked about corrupt politicians in Argentina and how he'd bought into the right wing propaganda as a young man until he married a left-leaning woman who told him, "Don't be so stupid - stop believing everything you hear." Augustín said their primary news channel is much like our Fox News and hammers in the idea that everything is terrible, crime is everywhere, and you should be scared. When we asked if he had an opinion about American politics he hesitated and then expressed some dismay about Trump. He mentioned an interview he saw with a Trump supporter who expressed racist views "without even blushing."
Santi (here) and Augustín were both very friendly and willing to talk with us about a range of subjects. The guides are friends and spend free time hiking in the summers and snow boarding and cross-country skiing in the winters. It seems to be true everywhere we go that we meet exceptionally friendly people.
We saw huge albatrosses swooping down to catch fish in the bay. Also, petrels skimming along the surface of the water with a stepping motion of their feet and we nicknamed them pajaros jesús (Jesus birds) for their ability to walk on water. We stopped near a rocky island where two types of cormorants nested - rock cormorants along the sides and imperial cormorants on top, both tuxedoed like penguins.
Even though it was getting colder, we couldn't resist going outside for at least a little of the boat trip.
We also passed a lighthouse that was originally lit by seal blubber and kerosene and had to be filled and lit every evening. Now it has a solar panel and runs itself.
Another island we passed had sea lions basking on the rocks. By then the wind had really picked up and the water was very choppy, making it too rough to snap a clear picture.
The skies were getting more overcast and the temperatures dropping a little, and we were glad we were on the morning trip.  When we got back to Ushuaia we found out that the Argentine navy had closed the port because of the rough seas.
Incidentally, When Magellan first sailed into the area, he was taken aback by the height of the Tehuelche people and called them Patagóns, or giants. They were apparently taller than Europeans, but not the 9-12 foot height first reported. This is where the name Patagonia comes from. We walked over to Ramos again to try mate and also got a plate of pastries. While we were drinking our mate, guess who came in and sat next to us? The Asshats. We studiously avoided eye contact.
Monica and Salvador has recommended El Viejo Marino to us, but we had not eaten there. We asked Augustín where to get good but not too expensive seafood and he also told us to go to El Viejo Marino. He said the owner owns the fleet that catches the seafood himself and supplies the other restaurants, so it as as fresh as can be obtained. He told us that mussels weren't on the menu, but we should ask for them anyway, and suggested we try the black hake. Sure enough, mussels weren't listed, but when we asked, they brought us two large plates of mussels cooked in herbs that were excellent. In fact, neighboring diners ordered mussels when they saw them arrive at our table.
The big slab of black hake we ordered was cooked simply and absolutely melted in our mouths like butter. It was one of those food bliss moments. Like a kiss, you reflexively close your eyes to fully experience it. Almost more wonderful seafood than we could eat, salad, potatoes, bread, sparkling water and a bottle of Santa Julia Cabernet, all for $53. We had wine waiting for us in our room at the Del Recodo and ran a bath. As we soaked in the steamy water, we talked about our penguin adventure and agreed that it was worth the expense and easily the highlight of our trip. What was most remarkable was that it wouldn't have happened at all if we had known to get the appropriate documentation to allow us to follow our original plan. Which brings me once again to my life motto that sits at the bottom of my blog: "Life is weird and unpredictable, but often in a good way."

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