Of the approximately 15 worldwide species of penguins, five are prevalent in South America, among them the Gentoo, Rockhopper, King, Macaroni, and Magellanic, the latter of which comprise the largest group and can be viewed at the Punta Tombo Penguin Rookery on the eastern coast of Argentina.
Access, via Trewel, requires an Argentinean domestic flight or cruise ship stop in Puerto Madryn, followed by a two-and-a-half hour drive, by rental car or sightseeing tour, to the actual rookery.
During an early-2007 trip, I made this very sea-and-land excursion. My motorcoach, one of five making the journey, left the pier and crossed the bridge toward National Route 3, the main highway connecting Buenos Aires in the north with Ushuaia in the south. Traversing Chubut, one of Patagonia’s provinces, it passed flat, dry, scrub-blanketing steppe topography characteristic of the coast, whose low, dome-shaped plants have adapted themselves to the dry climate, extreme temperatures, and constant winds created by the Andes Mountains which inhibit annual rainfall to between six and 12 inches. Passing through Trewel, a town settled by the Welsh where traditional afternoon tea is still served and the second-largest in the area with its own regional airport, the coach threaded its way through the low-elevation White Hills, which appeared like the Badlands of South Dakota, and intercepted the dry, dusty, gravel surface of Provincial Route 1. Indigenous South American wildlife, almost camouflaged by the low scrub, included the mara and the guanaco, the South American equivalent of the camel.
Ultimately entering the gate of a private sheep farm, it covered the final 39 kilometers to the rookery, itself on the Atlantic where the hills rose from the predominantly flat expanses, completing its 170-kilometer drive from Puerto Madryn.
A one-kilometer walk over a gravel trail led to the penguin colony.
Evolution has created a penguin body design which so precisely matches its dual-parameter, diametrically opposed lifestyle of feeding at sea, yet breeding on land, that no human engineer would have ever emulated it. These diverse sea birds, with hydrodynamic bodies, possess sleek, extended legs, not unlike the camber of an aircraft’s wing, to minimize resistance during both area plunges and extended swims. Their two short legs provide walking capability on land, yet reduce drag in the ocean, where they induce turns, much like rudders. Their flippers, also like modified airplane wings, propel them beneath the water surface and, coupled with their compact, “fusiform” body shapes, permit rapid speeds. A one-minute dive, for example, takes them 12 meters down. Contrastively, their dense bones enable them to remain submerged; otherwise, they would float, buoyantly, to the surface.
Feeding off of small, schooling fish, crustaceans, and Antarctic krill, which number in the billions in South Pole waters, they are able to target prey with their razor-sharp bills and retain anything caught with their tongue- and palette-extending “spines,” which ensure that ingested food cannot reverse its direction and escape back to the water.
Living in the south hemisphere, particularly in Argentina, Chile, the Falkland Islands, and Antarctica, penguins are able to survive low temperature, icy climactic conditions by means of their warm, dense, interlocking, waterproof feathers and under-skin, insulating fat layers, all of which serve to create excessive, unwanted heat during extended swims. In order to counteract this condition, upon exiting the water they utilize a process called “thermo-regulation,” or “heat-dumping,” at which time they channel excessive amounts of blood to the flippers, which “flush” like humans, temporarily changing their colors.
Punta Tombo, with 175,000 pairs, is the world’s largest breading penguin colony. During early-September, from the 10th to the 15th, the males return to the area, refurbishing their nests from the previous year, whereafter the females arrive and reunite with them, provided that the last mating had been a successful one. During the second half of the month, they court and two large eggs are subsequently laid in October, which produce the first babies after a 40-day incubation period. Because the chicks are born with an initial thin, gray plumage to permit easy transfer of warmth from the parents, they are unable to move very far form them until the new year, requiring the parents themselves to take turns venturing to sea to obtain food. They take the exact same path everyday.
Between January and February, when the early plumage has molted off, the baby penguins begin learning how to hunt for food and they take their first swims, testing the water with one webbed foot at a time, just like human children.
The cycle now reverses: for a two- to four-week period, the parents feed in the ocean, consuming far in excess of their normal diets, in order to prepare them for the molting period from March to April, during which time they lose their old feathers and regenerate new ones. Because this outer covering is not waterproof, they are unable to return to sea, and must fast on their reserves until the process is complete.
At the end of the breeding season, penguins migrate from the Patagonian coasts and the Falklands to islands off of Brazil for the five-month period from April to September.
Numerous penguins had been viewed during my one-kilometer walk, but their gray, rock-resembling skins and their semi-hidden locations, in their recessed dirt burrows beneath the low dome plants, had initially rendered them undetectable. Crossing a wooden footbridge, below which a multitude of them posed toward the hot sun, and following a winding, climbing dirt path, I almost kicked two large, gray, initially perceived rocks on either side. Both, it turned out, had been penguins, which have no innate fear of humans.
The lava rock outcrop at the end of the trail overlooking the beach and the Atlantic Ocean had sprung from volcanic activity 120 million years ago.
The gray gravel beach, littered with thousands of penguins, led directly into the ocean at a very narrow angle, the very “threshold” to their sustenance. It was from this water that they obtained the food to feed their chicks and re-initiate the life cycle each and every year.
Filled with observations, thoughts, and emotions, I turned and retraced my path back to the motorcoach, leaving “their” world for “mine.”