Sunday, 16 December 2012

Walking with Penguins

 After an early breakfast on Friday morning, I hurried down to the harbour to catch the shuttle bus for the penguin tour with Piratours.  I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning.  As we were waiting, I met Joseph from Croatia who was also travelling on his own, and we ended up chatting for most of the trip.  There were 20 people in our group – Joseph, myself and a couple from the UK were the only ones who spoke English so our guide Santiago conducted a great bilingual tour.

Santiago explained that we were driving 90 km to the boat and it would take an hour and a half.  The first half of the drive was on gently curving winding roads, the last half was on really winding gravel roads that steeply rose and fell as we made our way through the mountains.  Thank goodness I was sitting near the front.  Along the way, we saw a fox that ran along with us for a few minutes and we stopped at the top of a hill to take photos of windblown trees.

When we arrived at Estancia Harberton we made a quick pit-stop and then boarded the zodiac to head to Isla Martillo to see the penguins.  Everyone was so excited – you could feel the anticipation as we pulled onto the shore.  We were told that when we were on the island we should stay low so we wouldn't frighten the penguins, keep quiet, don’t smoke or eat, and take lots of photos!  When we got off the boat the penguins were right there and there were so many of them.  Santiago explained that the colony began in 1970 when a couple of penguins settled on the island (no one knows why) and the population is now about 4000 and growing each year.   The penguins were very curious and waddled over to check us out.  I was surprised at how close they wanted to come to us. 

We hiked uphill to another area of the island, away from the beach, where the penguins were nesting with their babies.  The babies hatch at the beginning of December so we were fortunate to see many of them in their nests as well as out with one of their parents.  I had always envisioned penguins living in cold Antarctic conditions so it seemed odd to see them in a meadow of long grass and on the hillsides with shrubs all around.  I was also surprised how noisy they could be when they would bellow to one another or warn one of us that we were getting too close to their nest. 

Curious penguins checking out the visitors

Adorable baby penguins with the parents

Penguins on the beach...

Penguins in the meadow, penguins on the hill....

Penguins on nests

We had an hour to spend on the island, photographing and watching the penguins, and it seemed like it was over in a moment.  We reluctantly climbed back into the zodiac and sped back to Estancia Harberton.

Cool old truck at Estancia Harberton. I'll have to ask dad more about this
truck when I get home - year? make?  It says "PowerWagon" on the side.

Outside the Museum
We had half an hour before we left so Santiago suggested that we visit Museo Acatushun on the property, or we could eat our lunch.  Joseph and I wandered through the pasture area, taking photos of the horses and rusting equipment, and then over to the museum.  What appeared on the outside to be a regular farm shed turned out to contain a remarkable display of marine skeletons assembled from remains that have washed up on the shores nearby.  Much of their vast collection was found at Bahia San Sebastian where a difference of 11 km between high tide and low tide leaves marine animals stranded on the beach. The UK couple had skipped the museum so Joseph and I had an exclusive English tour while the rest of the group went on the Spanish tour.  The displays all had English labels and information, which was very helpful. Who would have thought you would find such an amazing museum literally in the middle of nowhere?   

Displays inside the Museo Acatushun

Soon it was time to head back to town to eat a late lunch, hike back up the hill one last time to gather my things from Tzion and then say goodbye to Ushuaia.  What a remarkable place. 

Ushuaia is the launching point for all Antarctic cruises.  If I only had a few more weeks and a LOT more money….. 

When I looked in my guidebook back at the B&B, Lonely Planet described the Estancia Harberton as a ‘don’t miss’ destination in Ushuaia.  Tierra del Fuego’s first estancia, it was founded by Thomas Bridges and his family in 1866 and became famous after his son wrote a memoir titled Uttermost Part of the Earth about his experiences growing up there among the now-extinct Selk’nam and Yahgan people.  The museum specimens have been compiled by biologist Natalie Prosser Goodall.  If you are interested in visiting, be sure to contact them ahead of time by email as there is no phone and hours vary or book your visit through one of the agencies in Ushuaia. 

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