During our trip to Patagonia, Brian and I visited Isla Magdalena, a small island 30 km northeast of Punta Arenas, Chile. From November to February (penguin breeding season), the island is home to 150,000 Magellanic penguin breeding pairs.
We took a 30-minute boat ride out to the island. Thankfully we went in a covered, motorized boat and not the rusty hunk of junk on the ground next to the dock.
The island is a Chilean national monument.
The nest of a Magellanic penguin is called a “burrow.” In September, males come ashore to get their burrow ready for the female and babies. Females come two weeks later and look for males. Penguins, being mostly monogamous, return to the same breeding spot and the same burrow, and look for the same partner every year.
Six weeks after mating, the eggs hatch. Usually each couple has two or three eggs. The oldest, receiving more food from its parents, has the best chance of survival. The second-born, usually smaller, has only a 30% chance of survival. It is extremely rare for a third chick to survive.
Most of the burrows we saw were holes dug in the ground. Some penguins had built on the side of the hill, providing great wind protection.
We saw several pairs of males engaging in duels with their beaks, likely competing for nesting locations and females.
We heard many penguins making their call, which sounds like a donkey’s bray.
A juvenile penguin can be distinguished by the lack of stripes on its chest, neck and eyes. Even though a juvenile penguin is the size of its parents well before maturity, it will be three years before the young penguins are sexually mature.
After the eggs hatch, the parents take turns going out into the ocean in search of food, feeding the babies by regurgitating their own not-yet-digested food. Parents digest 30% of the fish they take in, saving the rest for the babies. An adult penguin can travel 100km in a day and can dive up to 80m. With the parents traveling such long distances for food, it’s not uncommon for a baby to wait three days between feedings.
After mating season ends, penguins must choose where to go – either towards the Pacific up to Peru, or towards the Atlantic up to Brazil. The following year, the adult penguin pairs plan to meet up in the same place. The juveniles will return to their place of birth the following year where they will spend two weeks on land shedding their feathers.
Magdalena Island is also home to many seagulls and their recently-hatched babies.
Brian and I went for a beautiful, but extremely windy, walk along the coast up to the island’s light house.
The scenery was gorgeous and there were penguins in every direction, including right on the path, making their way to or from the ocean.
After visiting the island, we returned to the boat for the ride back to town. It was a rough trip. Travel to the island, located in the Strait of Magellan, can be difficult and is known for strong winds and turbulent waves. It took two and a half hours to get back to the mainland. Thankfully, Brian and I didn’t get sick, but I can’t say the same for two other passengers on board.