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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrMost travelers to Punta Arenas, Chile are en route to Torres del Paine or El Calafate, possibly even Antarctica. If you find yourself at this windblown tip of the world and have time to go sightseeing, a visit to the Isla Magdalena penguin colony is a worthwhile trip.
Spirited and highly social, Magellanic penguins are a major attraction in Patagonia. Animal lovers and photographers alike will enjoy watching these entertaining creatures in their natural habitat.
Magellanic PenguinsThe austral summer months (November through March) are a good time to see the Magellanic penguins in their natural habitat. This specie is found only around the Falkland Islands and southern Chile as well as Argentina. According to the International Penguin Conservation Work Group, there are 800,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins in Chile and 1.8 million pairs worldwide.
The penguins in this region nest in burrows. Typically, nesting season begins in September when the burrows are hollowed out in preparation for egg laying in October.
For approximately 40 days, the male and female take turns incubating their eggs and foraging for food until the eggs hatch. Both adults continue to care for the chicks for an additional 30 days, hunting squid, krill, cuttlefish and a number of species of fish to bring back to the nest.
Breeding pairs mate for life and usually return to the same burrows year after year. They divide their chores evenly, from foraging for food and maintaining the burrow, to caring for the chicks.
Isla MagdalenaThe Isla Magdalena penguin colony has about 150,000 penguins on a small island in the Strait of Magellan . It is one of the largest penguin colonies in South America and also is home to a variety of nesting seabirds--including gulls and cormorants--and sea lions. The sheer numbers of penguins and wildlife on the island are a breathtaking sight and provide an opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime photographs.
Well-marked trails guide visitors through the island and among the hordes of penguins. Although access to Isla Magdalena can be difficult (see below), visitors to the island have claimed that the site is one of the best penguin colonies to visit outside of Antarctica.
Getting thereTo reach Isla Magdalena, visitors must reserve a tour, which includes an hour-and-a-half ferry ride (each way) from Punta Arenas through the Strait, and about an hour to explore the colony.
The ferries operate only for a few months (generally December to February) and are not in operation for the rest of the year. Additionally, ferry trips are often restricted by weather and run only a handful of days each week. If you are not flexible in your plans, visiting Isla Magdalena might be difficult.
Fees: Tours to Isla Magdalena cost approximately $30 per person, depending on the tour company.
Tour companies: Several companies, including Comapa and Solo Expediciones, offer organized day trips to Isla Magdalena.
Seno OtwayAn alternative to Isla Magdalena is Seno Otway, a smaller but more accessible colony located on the mainland. During breeding season, anywhere from 3,000 to 11,000 Magellanic penguins roam the grasslands and rocky beaches at Seno Otway penguin colony. A boardwalk loop serves to provide easy access through the colony as well as to protect the penguins and their burrows.
Because the penguins nest below ground, a walk through the open fields may not have much excitement, except for perhaps a few of the bumbling birds following paths in the grass. Often, the penguins are busy congregating at the beach, where a wood blind allows visitors to discreetly watch the penguins lounging on rocks and swimming in the surf.
Try heading to the beach first, in case the weather deteriorates later in your visit.
LocationThe Seno Otway colony is located about 64 kilometers north of Punta Arenas, approximately an hour’s drive from town. You can book a tour through a company or you can visit on your own if you have a rental car.
Hours of operationSeno Otway is open from October through March from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (check dates and times prior to visiting). The best time to visit is in the mornings and evenings when the penguins are more active. Allow 2 to 3 hours to visit.
FeesThere is a fee to drive on the private road, plus an entrance fee of about $15 to tour the colony.
DirectionsFrom Punta Arenas, follow Ruta 9 north, then take Y-510 to the west along a long dirt road until you reach the sound. Watch out for signs for the Pinguïneros near the police checkpoint along the highway.
Pros and ConsMany factors will come into play when deciding which colony to visit. Isla Magdalena, for example, is more difficult to reach and ferries to the island can be sporadic depending on the time of year (or day of the week) you are visiting. It is also worth noting that tours to the island only permit a very short time at the colony, so you do not have the flexibility to plan your own schedule.
Seno Otway, on the other hand, is much smaller than Isla Magdalena and does not have the same “wow” factor. However, in addition to costing less money, it is convenient enough to visit on your own without the assistance of a tour. You can take your time at Seno Otway and spend much more time than the one hour that is allocated at Isla Magdalena.
If you find that the ferries are not running to Isla Magdalena during your visit to the area, make the trip to Seno Otway instead.
WeatherThe weather around Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan is notorious for being extremely variable and, at times, severe. A sunny day can change to rainy and windy (and then back to sunny again) within the course of an hour. Plan accordingly and be sure to bring a rain jacket, rain pants, warm layers, a warm hat, and gloves. The wind can cut right through your clothes and has the potential to make for a very uncomfortable trip if you aren't prepared. Because of the wind and blowing rain, waterproof pants (which are often overlooked in favor of a jacket only) are a necessity for staying warm and dry.
Please Be RespectfulRemember, both Isla Magdalena and Seno Otway are the penguins’ natural habitats and are part of a conservation effort to protect this near threatened species. When visiting either colony, you are a guest in their home. Please be respectful of the penguins and do not shout, run at or near them, or leave the designated pathways. Any amount of stress can be detrimental to their safety.
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Author: SBoston. Last updated: May 02, 2015