I absolutely loved talking with Brighde Reed of World Vegan Travel about a few of my favorite things: writing, penguins, creativity, travel, and food. Check out her wonderful podcast here, where you’ll meet travelers, chefs, and many more fascinating and compassionate people.
Click here to listen to our chat, and if you’re ready to travel the world again (it’s been way too long!), don’t miss the upcoming trips with World Vegan Travel … from Japan to Thailand to South Africa to France to Italy, these trips look amazing!
I loved researching penguins for My Last Continent, but World Penguin Day is as special to me as it is bittersweet because every year, the world is a little harsher for penguins: fishing, climate change, and warming oceans are endangering a great many species.
There are many ways we can learn more about penguins and how to protect them, and many ways to help them directly, even if we’re (very) far from where they live.
For example, since most of us are currently staying home during the pandemic, one great way to help scientists (and to glimpse these amazing creatures in their natural habitat) is to join this citizen science project, Penguin Watch, which allows you to count penguins from your computer screen.
And here are a few ways to help penguins every day, all year:
Re-think your consumption of seafood. Overfishing is one of the biggest causes of penguin death, whether it’s because humans are eating their food (such as krill) or because they get killed by fishing nets and longlines. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
Be a thoughtful traveler and a respectful birdwatcher. If you must travel to see penguins (and it’s pretty irresistible), choose places that can handle your human footprints — and always go with eco-friendly tour companies. Once there, always pay close attention to guides and naturalists who know how to keep a safe distance. If you’re traveling without a group or guide, be sure to study up; learn about the birds’ habitat so you can be sure to stay out of their way.
Strolling around Puerto Madryn during our Penguins & Patagonia tour, we almost missed this lovely bookstore, Boutique del Libro, which is on the first floor of a shopping mall on the main street through town (“first floor” in Argentina is what we Americans think of as the second floor). This is the view from the street:
Boutique del Libro has a robust online store and branches throughout Argentina, including Ushuaia, Calafate, and several in the greater Buenos Aires region.
Once inside this Puerto Madryn location, this small bookstore revealed an abundance of books, from local and regional authors to international bestsellers — with an ocean view as a backdrop.
It’s a very quaint store with a lot of gift items as well as books — a wonderful place to browse, even if you aren’t a fluent reader in Spanish.
It has an especially sweet Patagonia section, with art books, calendars, journals, prints, and so much more that highlight the flora and fauna of the region.
If you’re in Puerto Madryn looking for gifts (or Spanish-language books, of course!), don’t miss this lovely bookstore on the first floor of Puerto Madryn’s main street.
One afternoon on our recent Penguins & Patagonia Adventure, we walked through the glamorous Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta, an area with an abundance of beautiful boutiques and shops. Bookstore geeks that we are, we couldn’t resist stopping into this beautiful antique bookstore.
There’s something so appealing about old books, and this store is no exception; it even has a wonderful old-book smell, like that of a vast library. The store offers myriad old and rare books, all in Spanish, most of them about Argentina, with a great many about Patagonia.
It’s a nice place to browse, but for security reasons you have to be buzzed in, and because the books are so old and some are so fragile, it’s a better place to look than to touch. But that was just as much fun for us.
The Antique Book Shop also has maps and illustrated books; we visited twice, enchanted by a nearly 100-year-old map of Chubut Province, a copy of which was also hanging in the living room at Rincon Chico. The map was made in 1928 and outlines the parcels of land that makes up the Peninsula Valdes. Because the peninsula is all privately owned, the map has the family names of all the landowners, the vast majority of whom pass down the land from generation to generation.
If you’re in interested in the history of Argentina — from literary to geopolitical to natural history — this bookstore is a must-stop on your visit to Buenos Aires. The store owner and employees are very helpful and speak both Spanish and English.
When I first visited El Ateneo, I had no idea this amazing bookstore had two additional locations. But then, this shouldn’t have been a surprise: Buenos Aires has more bookstores per person than any other city in the world, according to a study by World Cities Culture Forum. And while the large former theater that is now El Ateneo Grand Splendid on Avenida Santa Fe is perhaps the most famous, a short walk from there are two more branches, both on the pedestrian avenue Florida.
We decided to visit both, in part because we wanted to see more of El Ateneo (who wouldn’t?) and also because we were looking for a book on birds of Argentina that was in both English and Spanish.
El Ateneo, originally founded as a publishing house and bookstore, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, and it’s heartening to see the bookstore thriving in not just one but in all three locations.
The two smaller El Ateneo bookstores are located with a few minutes’ walk of each other — it’s hard to imagine a city in the States with so many bookstores, so close together, all doing well. (If the stores look empty in these photos, it’s because we were there in the early evening, which is quite early by Argentinian standards: In Argentina, people go out for dinner at 8 or 9 p.m., then shop afterwards. Shops are usually open until at least midnight.)
While neither of the two smaller stores have the grand decor of the El Ateneo Grand Spendid on Avenida Santa Fe, this larger branch has several stories, beautiful columns throughout the store, and a lovely marble staircase.
All branches have a large selection of books in dozens of genres, and even if the books aren’t in your native language, it’s still a joy to browse, and even to buy; I found several coloring books that were perfect for my little niece.
When I was in Buenos Aires for the Penguins & Patagonia Adventure with Adventures by the Book, it was my third visit to the glorious El Ateneo bookstore (known as El Ateneo Grand Spendid; there are two other, smaller branches of El Ateneo in Buenos Aires). And it was just as magical a place as it’s always been.
I’m not alone in my admiration of this store: more than a million customers visit it each year, and while many are tourists (on one visit I could barely walk around for all the visitors taking photos), on this last visit everyone in the store seemed to be local; they were browsing, reading, and buying.
The English-language section shrank from two sections to just one, and the selection comprises mostly thrillers and romance. The cafe, while quiet on the day we visited, is still open where the stage used to be.
Perhaps the cafe wasn’t crowded with readers because the former theater balconies make such great reading spots; we found an empty one and decided to get a group photo with My Last Continent.
If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires, make sure you set aside some time for this bookstore. It’s not only a gorgeous place to visit, but even if you don’t read in Spanish, there are a lot of gift items as well as books, so it’s a fun place for souvenirs as well.
I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.
This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.
Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”
As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”
As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.
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!
On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.
So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.
It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.
And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.
We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…
…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.
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.
After a couple of sunny days in Buenos Aires, the next stop on our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure was the much cooler, windswept oceanside city of Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The amazing two days we spent here were arranged by Carol Mackie de Passera of Causana Viajes (indeed all the Argentinian details of the trip were arranged by Carol, but our visit to Puerto Madryn was specially and thoughtfully curated by Carol to fit our literary theme). Also a naturalist and guide, Carol arranged for a tour of the local history museum, Museo del Desembarco, followed by a traditional Welsh tea with Argentinian authors in the beautiful historical building of the Welsh Association.
We (below, from left: Marcelo Gavirati, Silvia Iglesias, and Carlos Dante Ferrari — plus me, John, and Susan) had a wonderful chat about writing, culture, travel, and the fascinating Welsh history of Patagonia (the Welsh arrived in Puerto Madryn in the 1860s) and its thriving community here, all as we devoured scones, bread, pastries, and tea.
It was more than a year and a half ago that Susan McBeth and I began planning our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure by the Book, and when we found ourselves in Buenos Aires at last, we could hardly believe the trip was finally happening (and a small part of our group would be headed to bigger adventures yet, in Antarctica). But we had three days in beautiful, balmy Buenos Aires first — and we knew the best way to overcome the jet lag after our early morning arrival would be to stay awake, get out in the sun, and walk around. So we headed to one of the city’s biggest treasures: Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.
This gorgeous ecological reserve comprises 865 acres on the banks of the Río de la Plata. It was only a couple of miles’ walk from our hotel, and once inside the reserve, it was hard to imagine we were still in the middle of a bustling international city, except for a few glimpses through the greenery. The birders among us were especially happy with the myriad species of birds found throughout the reserve.
Of course, the ecological reserve is only one of the city’s many treasures; this being an Adventure by the Book, visiting the gorgeous El Ateneo bookstore was another priority.
Located inside a former theater, this bookstore is a joy to wander through, even if it has only one small English-language section. We posed for a group photo with My Last Continent overlooking the former stage, which is now a cafe.
And no literary tour is complete without an homage to the typewriter — we stopped by this typewriter repair shop, which had a lot of vintage machines for sale. It was a good thing that we had weight limits on our baggage and couldn’t make any purchases, no matter how tempting.
We officially kicked off the Penguins & Patagonia tour with a welcome dinner in the lovely Puerto Madero district, with a gorgeous river view as our backdrop. (Just out of view is Santiago Calatrava’s breathtaking bridge, El Puente de La Mujer, or “Woman’s Bridge.”)
So far 2018 has been a good year for penguins — a “supercolony” of 1.5 million Adélie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands, thanks to a drone that was able to find them. This is fantastic news for Adélies, whose populations have been in serious decline on the western Antarctic peninsula, but it doesn’t mean we can breathe easily and assume they’ll be okay. Adélies need ice to survive, and they eat mostly krill — two things that are in danger of disappearing due to climate change and overfishing.
Yet the Adélie penguins, whose total population is about 4 million pairs, are certainly doing well compared to other species. The yellow-eyed penguin population is estimated to be only 2,000 pairs, and numbers for the Fiordland-crested penguins are only 1,500 pairs. Both of these species live in New Zealand.
According to one study, the king penguins — who are widespread, from the Indian Ocean to the South Atlantic — are being forced to travel farther for food, which means that their chicks will be left on shore to starve (penguin chicks have thick, downy fluff until they fledge, preventing them from foraging for themselves until their waterproof feathers come in).
What can we all do to help penguins?
Give up eating seafood, or at least try 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. Even “sustainable” seafood has an impact on the oceans and wildlife.
It was a big thrill to meet the majestic king penguins on a recent trip to South Georgia Island. The second-largest penguin in the world, kings are even more colorful and striking than the emperors, and they are social and curious. (None of these photos was taken with a zoom lens. If you sit on the beach, they will walk right past you, and sometimes even come up to check you out.)
The colonies we visited ranged from 7,000 breeding pairs to 50,000 — and due to horrific weather, we didn’t get a chance to see the biggest colony on South Georgia. But seeing thousands of penguins at sunrise was pretty spectacular. The chicks were huddled in the middle of the rookery, but many curious adults came over to visit.
As you’ll see in the video below, kings (who have no predators on land) are unafraid of humans. Visitors are not allowed to approach or touch them, of course, but if you sit quietly you’ll receive many visitors, one after another. (And hearing their trilling call is an amazing experience, as you’ll hear in this video.)
The total population of kings is 1.6 million, but as this article outlines, like all penguins, they are vulnerable to climate change and could lose as much as 70 percent or more of their current numbers in the years to come.
Despite this romantic picture, king penguins actually don’t have high fidelity rates — which is likely due to their very long breeding cycles (nearly 15 months from courtship to when the chicks fledge) and the fact that while they return to the same colony, they don’t molt at the same time.
Like the emperors, the king penguins do not build nests but carry their eggs around in a little pouch above their feet. They are now in the IUCN category of “least concern,” which is a good thing … but climate change and the fishing industry are bound to change this status if both continue moving forward at the current rates.
I adore elephant seals. They are among the most interesting creatures on the planet to watch (and I’ve traveled to a lot of continents to watch a lot of creatures).
For one, they really know how to enjoy life, as you can see in the video I took of this happy girl on a beach on South Georgia Island.
They are also hilariously disgusting, and visiting elephant seals during their molt is an extremely good time to see them at their most appalling. They lie on the beach — gigantic, lazy, grunting beasts who are tumbling all over each other, sometimes fighting, and always bellowing —and you can smell them long before you catch sight of them. Here’s a video of a male calling out to all those near and far…and by the way, the males piled up in this video weigh up to 8,000 pounds and reach 7 feet tall when they rise up to fight one another.
And perhaps my favorite image from my visit to Gold Harbour on South Georgia Island was this one — a skinny, post-molt gentoo penguin appearing to flee the wrath of this elephant seal. (The gentoo was in reality doing no such thing — he was only making his way to the beach — but when it comes to wildlife photography, timing is everything.)
For all of you who are now convinced you must meet these incredible creatures yourself, join me and Adventures by the Book on our Penguins & Patagonia journey this October! We will be meeting the Magellanic penguins featured in My Last Continent (and there’s an optional excursion to Antarctica if you’d also like to meet the gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies), and we will also have a chance to spend quality time with elephant seals during their mating season. (You can imagine how entertaining that will be.) Click here to learn more about this upcoming adventure.