In Search of Mystery Penguins

They're gentle, they're curious, they're ground-dwelling - but where are they?

WHAT to do?

Our plane to Antarctica couldn't leave because of bad weather.

We were in the world's southernmost city, Punta Arenas, Chile. Not much happening here.

Conveniently, though, the Magellanic penguins nest nearby. One of their rookeries lies beyond a sheep ranch in the barren, windy land of Patagonia.

We decided to rent a car and go see.

Four journalists headed out early one morning with high hopes of seeing penguins. Gonzalo, a tour operator, told us that morning was the best time for penguin viewing: ``They're in a better mood,'' he said.

The one-hour drive (longer, with stops) to the colony was filled with sightings of other birds: Chilean flamingoes, upland geese, black-necked swans, coscoroba swans, and lesser rheas. The road meandered through sheep country; lambs were everywhere, sticking to their mothers like Velcro.

While passing through the last sheep ranch before the rookery, a ranch with a spectacular view of the ocean, a cowboy who looked like he came from Central Casting galloped up and posed for our cameras. He was used to gringo tourists driving through his land. ``You're going to see the penguins?'' he said, smiling - wryly, somehow.

A Chilean naturalist collected our 1,000 pesos (about US $2.50) at the entrance to Seno Otway Bay Penguin Colony, a protected area. Pointing us in the right direction, he instructed us in Spanish not to cross the cordoned-off areas with the highest concentration of burrows. ``Sometimes you have to wait awhile before they come out,'' he said. ``Be patient.''

Obediently, we stayed on our side of the rope. ``Silencio!'' cautioned a hand-painted sign. ``Sit quietly and let the birds get accustomed to you,'' cautioned another.

Our guidebook said: ``Magellanic penguins are naturally curious and tame, although if approached too quickly they will retreat into their burrows or toboggan awkwardly across the sand back into the water. If approached too closely, they will bite ... never stick your hand or face into a burrow. The least disruptive way to observe the penguins is to seat yourself near the burrow and wait for their curiosity to get the better of them.''

We sat just outside their holes. Large waves crashed onto the beach which led to the gentle hills where the birds dug burrows about four feet into the sand. Some burrows lay far from the beach, up to three-quarters of a mile away.

They were in there, all right, looking at us and wagging their heads from side to side. We didn't move. We barely breathed. Although the sun was out, it was uncomfortably windy and chilling. Surely one would come out any minute.

We tried changing to another hole. We split up - maybe four journalists at one burrow was too many.

After several hours of waiting, I started to photograph the scenery. I took pictures of little purple flowers growing near some burrows. The harsh winds made any vegetation hug the grass-carpeted sand.

Wandering from burrow to burrow, I saw little pairs of penguin eyes peering out at me. (I think they were laughing.) I finally lay down on the grass, pretending to be asleep but having my camera ready.

It didn't work.

We unanimously decided to give up after four hours. On the way out we learned from another naturalist that evening is the best time to visit, since many birds spend the day fishing and swimming, returning to their burrows at dusk.

Maybe that's why the cowboy's smile was so wry.

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