Penguins & Patagonia: Exploring Península Valdés

By Midge Raymond,

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

 

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estancia support the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!



Penguins & Patagonia: Back at Punta Tombo

By Midge Raymond,

John and I volunteered at Punta Tombo with the University of Washington’s Penguin Project (now the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels) back in 2006. We’d always dreamed of returning to the colony, though we were also a little worried about what we might find. We know that the penguin population is down by 45 percent at Punta Tombo (sadly, it is no longer the largest Magellanic colony in the world), and that tourism is increasing (to 100,000 visitors a year).

Despite our concerns, our visit was encouraging on so many levels. First, we encountered a brand-new visitor’s center with a gift shop, cafe, and a little museum highlighting the wildlife of the region. While this may not sound like a good thing, it is: Unlike the last time we were here, all the cars and buses now park well outside of the colony, which means no more incidents of penguins being hit by cars, or being unable to return to their nests.

As we walked toward the colony, the first familiar sight was in fact not penguins but guanacos on the hillside. These beautiful llama-like animals live among the penguins and miraculously never seem to crush the penguins’ burrows despite how often they walk right past or over them.

We continued on, past the public restrooms, the older gift shop and cafe, the guardafauna station, and the cueva next to which the trailer we’d slept in used to be parked (the trailer is no longer there). And soon we could see that the tourist trail has been much improved, with new walkways and viewing areas, and it wasn’t packed with visitors as we’d anticipated. We arrived as the penguins were carefully incubating their eggs (the chicks are already starting to hatch, as I write this a week later), and as you can see in this photo, the birds are guarding the eggs carefully.

We got the chance to meet with Ginger Rebstock, one of the longtime researchers at the colony, who caught us up on all the news. Among the news we were most eager to hear: Turbo the penguin returned safely to the colony this season, though he was out at sea the day we were there. We were sorry to have missed seeing him, but are so glad to know he is safe and still returning home, though he does remain a bachelor. Ginger doesn’t believe his chances of finding a mate are good; there are far more females than males at Tombo, which means that a lot of the males will remain bachelors.

Thanks to John Yunker for this photo, below, of a penguin rearranging her nest. As you’ll see, the skin around her eyes is quite pink; this is because it was a warm day, and she’s releasing some body heat through these small, featherless patches of skin around her eyes.

Below is a photo of a little bay where we glimpsed Chubut steamer ducks, endemic to Argentina, sharing this little beach with a raft of penguins. It was a glorious clear, sunny day, ideal for penguin viewing.

 

And I absolutely love this photo that Susan took of this beautiful penguin with My Last Continent. (One thing to note about the tourist trail at the colony is that the penguins are used to humans and they will walk right up to you and will pass within inches of you if you’re standing nearby. The penguins who nest near the tourist trail are used to people; further out in the colony, they are far more skittish around humans since they don’t encounter them as often.)

We didn’t get a photo of The Tourist Trail (named after this very setting), but for a fictional read about this amazing colony, check it out here.

As ever, for more great photos of the tour, visit the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.



Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

By Midge Raymond,

January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day, and it’s more important than ever that we celebrate (and work to protect) these amazing animals.

If you’ve read My Last Continent, you’ve met the Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and Magellanic penguins. Last November, I was delighted to meet a new species: the Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguin. (Tawaki is the Māori name, meaning crested; these birds are found only on the South Island of New Zealand.)

The amazing Tawaki live in the rainforest, nesting under tree roots and bushes. They hike from the ocean across sandy beaches, over sharp rocks, and up steep banks to get to their nests. Sadly, there are only about 3,000 of these incredible penguins left on earth.

The Tawaki are endangered due to several factors, including predators on the island (non-native species such as stoats, possums, rats, and feral cats), climate change, and human disturbance (from tourists to the fishing industry). Tawaki are very shy, and it’s rare to see them — and when you do, you have to be very careful to keep your distance; if they come back to shore to feed their chicks and a human is near their path to the nest, they will get frightened and return to the ocean, leaving their chick to go hungry.

How can you help penguins like the Tawaki stay with us forever?

  • Consider giving up seafood, or even cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.

And keep learning! The more you know of these majestic creatures, the more inspired you’ll be to help save them. Join me in Patagonia in October to meet Magellanic penguins up close and personal at the largest colony in the world. This journey will be a small group of travelers who will meet with local researchers to learn more about their work with this colony, and with any luck, we’ll get to meet Turbo the Penguin as well (the inspiration for the Admiral Byrd character in My Last Continent). Learn more here.

Happy Penguin Awareness Day! (And thanks to John Yunker for these wonderful photographs.)