It is a rare privilege to see the Magellan penguin, as you will on Tuckers Islets during the cruise portion of your South American Glaciers, Forests & Lakes itinerary with Discovery Tours. These adorable flightless birds are classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
It was Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who first spotted these odd creatures waddling among the Chilean fjords in 1520. They are perhaps the most recognizable penguin, with markings that closely resemble the tuxedo-clad caricature we’ve all seen in animations: black backs, white bellies, two black stripes below the neck, and a black cowl. Its wings were not designed for flying, but for swimming, behaving more like fins.
The penguins you’ll see from the decks of the Stella Australis may well have just come up for air from the watery depths. They feed on squid, krill and other sea creatures, for which they can dive up to 150 feet. But these feathered hunters follow the dictum that there’s safety in numbers, traveling in large flocks – known as colonies, parcels, or rookeries – when they go foraging.
To be sure, such partnerships are critical to a successful hunt. But they are also important to keeping the rookery thriving. Male and female penguins share the incubation of their eggs, trading off in 10-15 day shifts. After hatching, both parents raise the chicks for about a month, after which the little ones learn to fend for themselves. So it’s not surprising that Magellan penguins are monogamous, mating with the same partner year after year. During mating season, the female finds her mate by listening for his distinct call among a sea of penguins.
Several factors explain why the Magellan penguin is threatened. Their natural predators – sea lions, giant petrels, leopard seals – contribute to their natural decline, of course. But humans are far more menacing. Local oil spills in the birds’ hunting grounds kill tens of thousands each year. Climate change is also shrinking the population: extreme weather events like intense storms, drought and wildfires, disrupt their ability to reproduce. And an increase in torrential rains during the “off season” causes hypothermia in chicks that have not yet grown feathers.
Efforts are underway to protect the beloved birds. One local organization is working to create a marine protected area near the largest rookeries. Creating a preservation zone will ensure that breeding colonies will be successful, setting the stage for the Magellan penguin to continue waddling its way into our hearts.