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Day 3 - February 27, 2009 - Punta Arenas

By Claudia Roedel

Co-ordinates: 53° 08' 49 S, 70°54' 23 W
Weather: Sunny and pleasant

Despite the gloomy weather forecast, the weather was actually nice and sunny as we boarded the buses in Punta Arenas and departed for our excursion to Isla Magdalena.

We drove through the town of Punta Arenas, passing by beautiful architecture and the large main plaza highlighted by a monument to Magellan. As this southernmost region of Chile is named after the explorer, he is revered in this vicinity.

After a short bus trip, we arrived at the local car ferry that had been arranged for us. Hanging in the car ferry was a plaque indicating that it was built in 1965 in Florida! We received our lunch packs and settled in for the two-hour transfer.

Our photographer, Chris Collins, led the bird and marine mammal watch from one side of the ship. The other lectures were spread around the ship, and we all communicated our sights to each other via radio. Along the way, we spotted several groups of penguins, kelp and dolphin gulls. Andrew managed to take a few photos of some dolphins, probably dusky dolphins. Some South American sea lions were also spotted.

After two hours, Isla Magdalena came into sight. It is a very small island, not very tall, with a lighthouse on its highest point. The island looked bare of vegetation, and a plethora of Magellanic penguins were walking all around. They were everywhere; in clusters near the shore, at the entrance to their burrows and swimming close to shore.

This species of penguin lives on the Chilean coast almost as far north as Peru, to the Peninsula Valdez on the west coast of Argentina and along the east coast of South America. They live in burrows, and mate for life. Each pair meets in spring, and lay two eggs. Many times, only one chick survives.

Many of the birds we saw close to the shore were this year's chicks, already molted into their waterproof feathers. They are easy to distinguish from the adults because they lack the pink, featherless patch located between the eye and the bill.

Most of the adults were undergoing their annual molt. In penguins, the molting process occurs all at once, and is called 'catastrophic molting'. Since the bird is not waterproof, it is unable to swim and feed during the molting period. As a result, all of the molting birds cluster in areas that offer protection from the wind, and they generally look quite miserable during this process. The young chicks, however, having recently shed their baby down coats and acquired their diving gear, looked as though they were having a great time in the swell, learning how to swim and exercising the chest muscles that are vital for their survival!

The path was quite easy, and most people made it to the lighthouse at the top of the island. We spent an enjoyable hour walking around the island, and observing the penguins and kelp gulls. Following our visit, we returned to the ferry and settled in for the two-hour trip back to Punta Arenas.

Upon arrival in Punta Arenas, we re-boarded our bus for the return drive to the ship. As we crossed the city, a photo stop was made in the main square, and many guests choose to remain in town to admire the beautiful local architecture.

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