We reached Puerto Madryn, our first stop back on the continent of South America. on February 14. This city of almost 100,000 sits on the Golfo Nuevo which was shimmering in the morning light.
The town was founded in July of 1865 when 150 Welsh settlers arrived. They named the town “Porth Madryn” after an estate in Wales. This area of Argentina was largely settled by folks from Wales (the largest nearby towns are called Trelew & Gaiman) displacing the indigenous Tehuelche people who had lived in this area for some 3,000 years. Since the 1970’s, when its population was still only about 6,000, Puerto Madryn has been one of Argentina’s fastest growing cities.
There is not all that much to see in Puerto Madryn so we joined a private excursion to Punta Tombo to visit the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America. To meet the van we had to walk down a very long dock overlooking the water, where seals and birds were to be seen.
We visited the western part of Patagonia in an earlier stop at Puerto Chacabuco, which was lush with mountains, rivers and dramatic landscapes. https://baderjournal.com/2019/03/24/puerto-chacabuco-chile-2019/ But this part of eastern Patagonia was mostly fairly flat and covered by scrub bushes. It was a very long drive through this less interesting landscape.
When we finally arrived at the Punta Tombo Nature Reserve, there was still a fairly lengthy drive on a dirt road to reach the parking area. We passed a sculpture of what appeared to be penguins, and the grounds were filled with small bushes bearing bright yellow flowers.
From the parking area there was a boardwalk to the beach. It was a long walk, maybe a mile or more. On our last visit to South America we visited a much smaller colony of Magellanic penguins at a place called Otway Sound near Punta Arenas. https://baderjournal.com/2012/02/04/punta-arenas/ But the penguins are no longer at Otway and, in any event, Punta Tombo has the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America, somewhere between half a million and a million penguins according to what we have read. The total population of these penguins has declined by more than 50% since the 1980’s due to diminishing food supply among other things (some 40,000 are killed each year by oil spills). Magellanic penguins dig holes in the ground for their nests, which they guard ferociously, and they make a surprisingly loud braying sound. On our way to the beach we passed a large number of them, in their nests, under a bridge in the boardwalk and just walking about. It was very hot out & most of the penguins seemed to prefer the shade.
By the time we were there the chicks had pretty much grown up (eggs are laid primarily in October and November). We did see a number of them molting their dull gray baby down to disclose the Magellanic patterns underneath.
Penguins weren’t the only wildlife we encountered at Punta Tombo. Rheas are large ostrich-like birds that we saw pecking in the sand for something to eat. Guanacos were there as well. These are wild camelids closely related to llamas. In fact, some sources suggest that llamas are actually domesticated guanacos.
We reached the boardwalk overlook at the beach (you aren’t allowed on the beach itself, which is reserved for penguins). It didn’t look like half a million penguins there at the time, but there certainly were thousands. It was fairly late in the season so many may have left already (they winter in Brazil), many were in their nests away from the beach & many were on other stretches of beach. The whole time we were there penguins were walking to and from the beach.
While most of them were standing on the beach many were in the water, probably to cool off on this hot & sunny day.
Time was running short & we still had a long walk back to the parking area, so we hurried on to see one more beach. This one was a bit smaller, but still quite a lot of penguins, many in the water. There were also some molting chicks on the nearby rocks. We passed the first beach again & headed back along the boardwalk.
We hurried along the boardwalk, whose planks were not at all even. Wearing his sandals, Rick tripped on a board and found himself lying face down on the boardwalk. Two guys ran over and helped him up, to his embarrassment (he was neither too old nor too hurt to get himself up on his feet). The fall tore a hole in his pants by one knee and scraped the skin. It took the rest of the voyage for the knee to fully heal and there were some other lingering aches and pains as well. Worse, he was holding his (brand new) camera when he went down and part of one side was slightly bent. But it continued to work just as well, so that was a close one. On the walk back we encountered a penguin who thought it owned the boardwalk and a sign protecting a penguin crossing.
There were few highlights on the long trip back to the Prinsendam. We passed by the city of Trelew, another Welsh settlement. Founded in 1886, Trelew’s population is slightly more than Puerto Madryn’s. Near Trelew is a full size reconstruction of a dinosaur unearthed in Patagonia that was the largest land animal yet known. It is some 90 feet tall and 120 feet long. It is called Patagotitan mayorum (Patagonian giant).
We returned to Puerto Madryn, driving along a road on the opposite side from the water. Caught a glimpse of the Prinsendam sitting at the dock with the much larger Celebrity ship that was also with us in the Falklands. In the square where we were dropped off at the beginning of the long walk up the pier to the ship was a sculpture of a whale’s tail. Right whales breed in this area, but not during the season we were there. And a lot of folks were out enjoying the beach, near where we were walking and all along the beaches in front of the city.
Back on the ship, we watched from our veranda as birds (mostly kelp gulls & terns, or possibly cormorants) and dolphins scurried about on the bay.
We sailed away shortly before sunset. As we left the bay there was a long cliff along the water. It was Valentine’s Day and as we went to dinner we encountered the ship’s penguins already celebrating.
So that is the end of our penguin encounters (off the ship) for this voyage. We saw quite a lot of them, many more than in 2012, and they are always fun. We will leave you for tonight with a watermelon carved for Valentine’s Day & a towel jellyfish (we think).