Day 10 |
Nov 10, 2009

Punta Arenas, Chile

By Victoria Salem, Historian

Co-ordinates: 53°10.2’S, 070°54.4’W

Weather: Overcast with some rain and sunshine.

After an excellent night’s sleep in calm waters, I awoke to find the Prince Albert II coming alongside the dock in Punta Arenas. After fortifying myself with a substantial breakfast, I disembarked to the pier, where I helped guide guests on to buses for an excursion to the Magellanic penguin rookery on Magdalena Island.

We departed soon after 8.30am in three buses, driving through the centre of Punta Arenas in order to reach our chartered ferry departure point.  Our local guides were able to cover quite a bit of the history of this important town, southernmost in Chile, en route. First we passed through Plaza Munoz Gamero. This main square at the heart of town is landscaped with conifers and surrounded by Punta Arenas’ most opulent and impressive mansions, with a fine statue of the explorer Magellan at its centre.  Another highlight was the Instituto de la Patagonia – part of Punta Arenas’ university, featuring antique farm buildings and industrial machinery. 

Our ferry was awaiting us and we picked up a welcome “snack bag” as we boarded.  We were all delighted to find ourselves on a brand new vessel with comfortable padded seats and lots of space in which to relax and enjoy the sea views. I was out on deck to see Punta Arenas retreat in the distance and again to watch our arrival at Magdalena Island, escorted by giant petrels.  For most of us, the two-hour crossing was spent learning from our guides about our destination, plundering our goodies bag and dozing a little…

At about 11am, we stepped off the ferry and gathered in our Zodiac groups for a guided walk along the island trail to the lighthouse and back. We were grateful that Robin had reminded us to dress in layers, as the wind got up during our tour and at one point (fortunately, not for long) the rain came down. The penguins didn’t seem to care one bit! From the moment we landed, we could observe these comical, yet dignified creatures going about their daily lives. There were upwards of 65,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins breeding on the island, most sitting on eggs, which were expected to hatch in the next month.  By April the breeding season would be over, the young newly fledged and heading out to sea for the winter.  This was an excellent time for a visit!

Magellanic penguins nest in burrows in the ground and we could see into the “homes” on either side of the path across the island. Fascinated, we watched penguins heading out to sea for fish, squid and krill, bobbing like bath toys in the waves.  Others were collecting clumps of grass and kelp with which to furnish their burrows. As the penguins’ paths crossed ours they would peer at us curiously and short-sightedly (their vision is best under water), then calmly continue on their way.

The penguins did not live alone.  There were many kelp gulls among them, hoping for a meal of egg or penguin chick.  Giant petrels and skuas posed an even greater threat and we also saw some very beautiful dolphin gulls (with red beaks) on the beach and shags nesting on the rocks. 

The path ended at a lighthouse with a display in Spanish and English about the history and biology of this area.  I was happy to take shelter from a short rain shower before heading back in the direction of the ferry, through the penguin rookery once more.  Amazingly, right near the end of the path, we came across a burrow containing a new- born chick, just a few hours old judging from its tiny size and fragments of surrounding egg shell.  Our photographer, Richard, got some great shots for the voyage DVD.

I was happy to get warm again on the ferry and enjoy chatting about what I had seen with everyone.  Once again, the two-hour trip gave us the chance to have a little snooze before we re-boarded the buses to return to the ship, arriving around 2.30pm for a late lunch. We heard more about the history of Punta Arenas on this return ride too, especially about the fascinating municipal cemetery we passed, with its yew trees and extravagant tombs. We also drove past the beautiful and impressive Palacio Mauricio Braun, once home of the famous Menendez-Braun family (who founded their empire in Punta Arenas), now a museum testifying to the wealth and power of these pioneer sheep famers.

We all spent a quiet afternoon, gathering together in The Theatre for a 5pm Recap & Briefing. This was the last chance for staff to share their knowledge with guests and for guests to ask (difficult!) questions.  Then we withdrew to our suites to prepare ourselves for the Captain’s Farewell Cocktail Party in The Theatre, followed by dinner in The Restaurant. Captain Peter Stahlberg made a witty speech and presented to us many of the crew who had contributed to the success of our voyage.

Replete at last, some of us retired to bed while others relaxed in the Panorama Lounge and enjoyed Lou’s skilful playing until we called it a day and went to bed, looking forward to tomorrow’s final Zodiac cruise along Garibaldi Fjord, to the front of the Garibaldi glacier.