Magdalena Island's Magellanic penguins
These island residents always dress in chic black and white
MAGDALENA ISLAND, CHILE
On this bright, blustery Christmas morning on Magdalena Island, the residents are well-dressed, and fish is on the menu. Festive couples sing and sashay around.Skip to next paragraph
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Getting ready to join the scene, passengers from the expedition cruise ship Mare Australis look like party-crashers in yellow rubber rain suits and bright orange life vests.
The island's scents, sounds, and sights beckon. The chorus of hoots and honks rivals the horn-blowing crowd at a European soccer match. Little fleets of sea creatures, darting and diving, ferry out to meet the Zodiac boats. Small dolphins? No, penguins heading to sea for a Christmas dinner of fish, squid, and krill.
Magdalena is a nature reserve and summer home to more than 60,000 Magellanic penguin families. These knee-high birds, with their signature white facial and torso stripes, far outnumber us. Thanks to conservation measures - such as a local ban on commercial fishing and careful monitoring of visitors - this seabird colony is thriving.
It turns out penguins can fly, but water is their element. Their flipper wings and torpedo shape make them fast and graceful swimmers. Magellanic penguins spend half the year at sea. One of 17 penguin varieties, they prefer the relatively warm sub-Antarctic waters of the Falklands, southern Chile, and Argentina. Every September they return to rookeries such as Magdalena Island to breed, raise their young, and molt.
Males arrive first to reclaim last year's burrow in the sand. Then, dancing and clacking beaks, lifelong mates reunite, and females lay a pair of eggs. The parents take turns brooding on the nest and feeding in the open ocean, which is why so much traffic bustles in and out.
We disembark on the pebbly beach of what seems to be a small kingdom. Clearly this is not one of those wildlife safaris where we tread softly, hoping to catch a glimpse of animals. We're more likely to trip over the inhabitants, which are everywhere. Penguins dot the windswept grassy hummocks. Little crowds stand around the shore, dive off the rocks, wiggle belly-up in the surf, and recline belly-down drying in the sun.
Our guides have explained that Magellanic penguins are naturally shy, but that their sharp beaks can inflict wounds. We have been schooled in proper etiquette: Keep quiet, don't run, never touch, and maintain a few yards' distance. Evidently nobody briefed the penguins, which seem not the least bit worried about the giant neon aliens waddling about their domain.
A small unobtrusive fence makes all the difference. Constructed of stakes and cables, it marks a 1,970-yard-long walkway up the coast to a lighthouse, which serves as a manned ranger station from September until March each year. While allowing us a full view, the fence also prevents us from inadvertently collapsing the cavelike burrows that mine the terrain. The birds, confident that we're corralled on our side, have no reason to fear, and scuttle back and forth as they please. In fact, some come right up close and stare, even nipping at our pants out of curiosity.
Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I amble up the path in the wind, trying to take it all in. The residents people-watch from the entranceways of their burrows. Inside, shaggy gray chicks doze, eyes half-mast, like contented kittens.