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March Among the Penguins in the Strait of Magellan

By: Marguerite McNeal + Save to a List

My first thought when we stepped onto the tiny island was “it doesn’t smell.” That’s saying something when you’re surrounded by 150,000 penguins, all squawking, schlepping fish to feed their newborns, and taking care of daily business.

Along with a hundred or so other passengers, I disembarked the Melinka ferry to find myself smack in the middle of the Strait of Magellan. Magdalena Island is uninhabited by humans, but from fall to spring it’s a megalopolis of Magellanic penguins. They come here to breed from as far north as Rio, forming a colony double the size of Burners at La Playa.

If you travel to Patagonia, go see the penguins. It was an afterthought for me, a spontaneous outing spurred mostly by my partner’s love and pursuit of all things cuddly. But watching families of penguins carry on and look after each other is well worth the trek. You feel that the world isn’t totally imploding, that maybe there is some hope for us after all.

Magdalena Island is part of Los Pinguinos Natural Monument and is a two-hour ferry ride from Punta Arenas, Chile. Passengers board the Melinka like vehicles on a car ferry—walking on through an outward folding bow and climbing stairs up to the cabin. What the journey lacks in frills it makes up for in stories.

By the time you arrive on the island, you’ve heard the crew explain how Ferdinand Magellan navigated the treacherous passage between Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1520. Even more interesting, you learn that the eponymous penguins make the same daunting pilgrimage year after year. They mate for life, and return to the nests they’ve built in burrows on the island to raise their young. Parents take turns. One watches the chicks while the other fishes for the family; then they switch.

It sounds like a story that sounds too precious to be true, but it comes to life as soon as you disembark. There are penguins for as far as you can see. Even beyond the island, you'll spot them darting through the crystal clear water. The grownups stand about knee height, with a horseshoe-shaped black band across their chests. It’s easy to pick out the chicks. Fluffy and gray, they haven’t yet developed the distinctive dark stripe and they’re downright chubby compared to their parents.

Other than a thin rope that guides humans on a path through the colony, there are virtually no rules or plans. Left to my own devices, I watched three penguins march in a perfect line to the sea. I saw chicks eating right out of their mom’s mouth less than a foot away from me. And I watched two males face off with a dramatic show of wings and high-pitched cries.

Time at the sanctuary goes by all too fast. Visitors have an hour to stroll around the entire island—less than a mile in total—yet I and everyone else was still meandering when the ferry horn announced our departure. As I stood there with every other tourist grinning and taking penguin selfies, the birds paid us no mind. We’d be gone in a heartbeat, while they’d continue to return to this sparse, beautiful place for years to come.

If you go, Transbordadora Austral Broom runs morning and evening trips daily.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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