I’ve said it before but it needs to be underscored: stepping onto the shore of Martillo Island, in the southernmost reaches of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, was among the more surreal sensations I’ve ever experienced. To find yourself nearly face-to-face with wildlife, on their turf and separated by just a few meters, is an experience to breathe in and cherish, as uncomfortable as it may be. You feel like an intruder, even if a benign one who is only allowed to stay for sixty minutes and who cannot stray –at all– from carefully delineated paths and walkways.
As soon as you disembark after the brief 15-minute boat ride that brings you over the bumpy waters of the Beagle Channel, you’re immediately overcome by the sensation that you don’t belong on that rocky shore. Because you obviously don’t. At all.
You’re in a wind-swept unforgiving setting surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of oddly cute thigh-high creatures, most of whom are standing relatively still, blankly staring at the violent waves, their flippers flapping in the stiff winds.
During your hour-long stay, you’ll notice that blankly staring from the shore takes up a great deal of their time. So does waddling about aimlessly. Not wholly unlike humans who vacation in seaside or island settings. But Martillo Island –Isla Yécapasela is its native Yagan name— was never a holiday resort.
It’s part of the oldest farm in Tierra del Fuego, the Estancia Harberton, founded in 1886. Since 1978, when the 50,000-acre ranch –mountains, forests, lakes and islands all fall within its property lines— was finally connected to by road, it’s been operating as a working nature reserve.
The penguin colony, established naturally in the early 1970s, has since grown into a seasonal home to some 3,000 mating pairs of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), who begin to arrive in late September and stay until the early days of April. Year after year, the breeding process goes something like this:
Males are the first to arrive, to either reclaim and prepare their old nests –small burrows, some up to two meters deep– or seek out a better spot to build a new one. By the time the nests are ready, the females arrive and scope out the scene, looking for their mate from the previous season. Between the end of September and early November, they lay two eggs; hatching begins in the first weeks of December.
The newborns remain in the nests for about a month until they’re strong enough to begin wandering on their own. At that point they’re nearly as big as their parents but clearly stand apart due to their juvenile plumage that blows in the Channel breeze.
By late January, when the juveniles are 60 to 70 days old and have nearly finished molting, the begin to swim for their own food. Once hunting is mastered, they leave the colony. Some will never return while others will come back year after year.
In late March or early April, the rest of the penguins leave to begin their annual northward migration. They feed at sea for more than six months until their return to the island in the spring.
There are also about thirty-five pairs of Gentoo penguins (Pygoscellis papua) on the island but they’re a bit more temperamental in the company of humans –can you blame them?— and are only allowed to be observed from a distance.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the appearance of a King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica), who makes an occasional visit. Our guide Anna told us that his presence isn’t advertised since no one is sure if its visit is a temporary one, or if he’s planning to summer on Martillo on a more permanent basis.
While this colony is growing gradually each year, Magellanic Penguins have been classified as a threatened species, primarily due to oil spills which kill upwards of 20,000 adults and 22,000 juveniles each year. Climate change, which has displaced fish populations thus forcing the penguins to swim considerably farther distances for food, is also a factor. In all, 12 of 17 penguin species are experiencing rapid population declines.
Martillo Island basics:
PiraTours is the only company with a concession to bring visitors to the island. Spots fill quickly, particularly during the (southern hemisphere) summer months. Booking in advance is strongly recommended.
Departures daily at 2:30 pm, groups limited to 20.
Meet at the Piratours booth at the tourist port in Ushuaia from where you’ll be shuttled, along with a bilingual guide. The trip is roughly ninety minutes one way; the first part of the journey is along Highway 3 east of Ushuaia for about 40 kilometers and the last four on a secondary gravel road to the Harberton Ranch. The end-of-the-world mountainscapes are stunning. The trip includes a 45-minute bilingual tour of a fish and bird museum at the ranch. Also includes a pair of stops at scenic points.
Cost (updated June 2017): Tour (round-trip transport and island visit) US$ 165 (EUR 146), Harberton Ranch admission not included. Remember that Argentina’s current high rate of inflation will render these figures almost meaningless within a matter of months, but the USD or EUR figures should remain relatively accurate. Never mind though, it’s worth every peso. Because unlike the penguins, you probably won’t ever be returning.
And finally, a 24-shot gallery and below that a 60-second video. Enjoy!