Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The King of Tierra del Fuego.

King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus)
(Photo by Samuel Blanc. Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons.)

From the Atacama Desert, our trip through Chile will take us next to Patagonia.  We fly into Punta Arenas where we'll spend a couple of days before heading north towards the heart of Patagonia. While in Punta Arenas, I took the opportunity to book us on a full day tour of Tierra del Fuego which includes a visit to Parque Pingüino Rey (King Penguin Park) where we'll get to see penguins.   Neither Bro nor I have ever seen these charming creatures in the wild so we're both very much looking forward to doing this.

And though we've both heard of Tierra del Fuego and the Strait of Magellan, I really had no clue about either so it was time to do a bit of reading.

Tierra del Fuego ("Land of Fire") is an archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland, across the Strait of Magellan. The archipelago consists of the main island - Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego  and a group of many islands, including Cape Horn and Diego Ramírez Islands. Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, with the latter controlling the eastern half of the main island and the former the western half plus the islands south of the Beagle Channel.

To get to the penguins, our tour will take us, via ferry from Punta Arenas to the small town of Porvenir which is located on the main island of Tierra del Fuego.

Punta Arenas (green icon) on the left, Porvenir (orange icon) in the middle, and King  Penguin park (black icon) on the right. 
The vertical line is the border between Chile and Argentina.

Our ferry will cross the Strait of Magellan (also called the Straits of Magellan) a navigable sea route separating mainland South America to the north and Tierra del Fuego to the south. The strait is the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans but it is considered a difficult route to navigate because of the unpredictable winds and currents and the narrowness of the passage.  These days, the Panama Canal is the preferred route to go between the two oceans.

Of course, the strait was named after Ferdinand Magellan, the famed Portuguese explorer and navigator who became the first European to navigate the strait in 1520 during his global circumnavigation voyage.

Image created by Phillip Martin. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Chile took possession of the Strait of Magellan on May 23, 1843.  In 1848 the city of Punta Arenas was founded and the village of Porvenir emerged during the Tierra del Fuego gold rush in the late 19th century. Argentina effectively recognized Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan in the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. Argentina had previously claimed all of the strait, or at least the eastern third of it.

We could've taken a tour that flies you over to  Porvenir from Punta Arenas but I think it'll be more interesting to do the water route.  I just hope the weather is good so the water is calm enough for us to be on it!

A view of Porvenir.
(Photo by Heretiq. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.)

There's not a whole lot to see and do in tiny Porvenir.  Based on the day's timetable, I think we'll be having our lunch there.

In the early afternoon, we'll travel overland to Parque Pingüino Rey (King Penguin Park), 120 kms southeast of Porvenir to see the penguins!
King  Penguin
(Photo by Mark Dickson. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

There are 18 species of modern penguins living across the oceans of the Southern hemisphere and although a few are distributed in subtropical and even tropical areas, and other few in the Antarctic, most penguin species live in the cold, temperate waters of the Sub Antarctic region.  This is the case of the King Penguin, Aptenodytes patagonicus, which breeds on sub Antarctic islands and used to breed in the southernmost tip of the South American continent in the past.

One of the two members of the genus Aptenodytes (aka the large penguins) the King Penguin is second only to the Emperor in size among all penguin species. It feeds mainly on small fish and squid of the cold Southern Ocean.

The plumage of the King penguin is broadly similar to that of the closely-related Emperor penguin, with a broad cheek patch contrasting with surrounding dark feathers and yellow-orange color at the top of the chest, however the cheek patch of the adult King penguin is bright orange whereas that of the Emperor penguins is white, while the chest orange tends to be more vivid and less yellowish in the King species.

The King Penguin may breed any time in the year, producing two offspring every three years. This unique breeding cycle results in the fact that penguins of all ages may be present at a time in colonies of this species.  The chicks are fuzzy brown in color and they look so darn cute!  I hope we get to see a few.

A King  Penguin juvenile.
(Photo by Liam Quinn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

The small colony of  more than a hundred penguins, that resides within the boundaries of the park, is but a tiny fraction of the species total estimated population of around six million birds, but is the only continental breeding site in the world, hence its importance.

The colony is located in private, protected land, close to a river mouth, and the river is sometimes used as an access to the sea by the penguins, which is also a peculiarity of this particular colony. It is however this same river which makes it easy for some predators to reach the colony and prey upon eggs and chicks.

The colony is believed to have been here already in the prehistory, as remains of both King and Magellanic penguin have been found in archaeological sites and excavations of human settlements dated more than six thousand years ago in the area.  Over the centuries, it has come and gone e.g., when sheep farming destroyed their habitat.  Sadly, with global warming taking place, you have to wonder just how long these beautiful creatures will be around.

I don't know how long we'll get to be around these charming creatures but you can be sure I will capture every minute with photos and videos!