When penguins mate, they do so for life. That’s what makes them such attractive icons for love and romance. It is often said that a male penguin will present a female with a pebble as part of the courtship ritual – not unlike the presentation of an engagement ring to a potential spouse in the human world. Other sources say that the pebble is not so much a gesture of love and courtship, as a practical gift. Many species of penguins use stones to build their nests in order to keep their eggs elevated above the reach of flooding from melted snow.
Perhaps the romantics among us would see the latter explanation as disappointing but I choose to see both as romantic. A marriage, after all, is not just about the perfect rock. It’s about building a foundation that will strengthen and protect your home and family – much like the stone-lined nests of many penguin species.
When John and I were married in December 2021, we had a pair of very small, hand-carved, wooden penguins on our wedding cake – a nod to what should have been our Antarctic honeymoon in January 2022. Penguins have meant a lot to us since we got engaged and it was always our intention to include them in some small way on our wedding day.
When our Antarctic voyage was cancelled just before we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, we were disappointed to be missing out on a lot of things – whale-watching, hiking, camping under the Antarctic sky. But one thing we realised we could salvage was a visit to a penguin rookery. We would see penguins on our honeymoon – Antarctica or no Antarctica.
Isla Martillo is approximately an hour and a half away from the city of Ushuaia by road and by water. Many tour companies will take you out on a boat to see the island but local company, PiraTour, will transport passengers from the city to the Harberton Ranch where you can board a semi-rigid boat to Martillo Island. We were transported along the National Road 3 at a speed that made me reach for the medicine I had brought along for seasickness.
Before departing for the island, we stopped at a small museum, Museo Acatushún, on the Harberton Ranch where student volunteers talked us through the impressive skeleton collection on display. You can read more on that here.
From there, we moved just a short distance away to the Harberton house, where we put on our warm coats and hats and prepared to board the little boat that would take us to see the penguins. It was a bumpy ride, thanks to the wind, and I was glad to be sitting near the back of the boat, though John got great amusement out of a poor passenger sitting at the front who kept bumping his head off the steel bar above him. There was a sturdy canopy attached to the steel roof structure, providing some much-needed shelter from the buffeting wind outside.
It was a short boat ride to Isla Martillo and we were reminded of the rules: don’t get too close to the penguins; don’t feed the penguins; don’t touch the penguins; don’t steal the penguins; don’t take anything from the island. We weren’t permitted to go within three metres of the penguins but, if they came to us, we were to keep whatever distance we could so as not to stress them out. A final quip of “control your emotions” from the boat’s captain was most likely directed at us following our visible joy at seeing a large colony of penguins gathered on the beach as we approached the island. Within minutes, we were standing on the beach with them.
The two main penguin species on Isla Martillo are the adorable, striped Magellanic penguins, and the slightly bigger, orange-beaked and orange-footed Gentoo penguins. The former was what met us on the beach as we crunched our way across the gravel, in awe of their little waddles. We laughed as they walked, flapping their flightless wings as they went, but marvelled at the speed of those within the water, pointing and gasping as we watched them jump above the surface over and over again before landing on the beach and waddling to shore.
Our first sighting of a Gentoo penguin was minutes later when one came over the hill, running towards the beach like a bird on a mission. He stopped every so often as if to greet his black and white neighbours and spent some time sitting on the beach, pruning his feathers and flapping his wings.
As we followed our guide and began our short walk around the island, we came upon several holes dug in the ground where the Magellanic penguins were rearing their young. Their fluffy chicks were large in size – almost as large as their parents. There was always at least one parent with every chick at any given time and they were adorable to watch. They weren’t afraid of the humans that trod so close to their nesting area but we were warned not to make any sudden movements, lest we frighten the parents.
A little further along, we came close to a large colony of Gentoo penguins, their little orange beaks pruning the feathers of their young, feeding hungry, fluffy grey chicks or pecking at others that dared to irritate them. They gathered all in one place as a large crowd.
But our attention was soon drawn to an extra flash of orange among the crowd – a third species of penguin was pruning its own feathers, not quite blending in with the Gentoos, but looking quite at home amongst them all the same. This was a King penguin and we were informed that there is a pair of them, new to parenting, who live on the island. However, King penguins, like Emperors, will huddle together as a rookery, sharing warmth and protecting their eggs or chicks from the harsh cold of the winter, so our guide and others who monitor the island were interested to see how this couple would fare.
We continued our walk towards a stairway, which brought us up a hill and we were informed by our guide that we should not stop while passing through the nesting area. We were allowed to take videos and photographs while walking but we weren’t to stop. I soon found out why.
As I neared the top of the stairs, I realised there were Magellanic nests everywhere. We had to watch our step as the nests were directly beside the walkway, or under it. One nest was on the walkway and I had to turn to the girl behind me – who was understandably distracted by other penguins – to warn her to be careful. She would have stepped right into a nest of two babies and a parent otherwise.
Also along this walkway, we saw a Magellanic penguin running among our feet. “He just tried to bite me!” I heard John exclaim and when I looked down, there was indeed a little black and white penguin snapping at the trousers of a man just ahead of me. I laughed and the bird’s attention immediately turned to me. He ran straight at me to bite me and I backed away from him, though a scar from a penguin bite would have been a great story.
Magellanic penguins are curious little critters. As we made our way around the nests, they were as interested in looking at us as we were at them. Their little heads tilted to the left and to the right as they peered at us with first one eye and then the other. It was cute to watch, especially when the babies joined the dance.
We spent one glorious hour on Isla Martillo and, while time went by so quickly, the island was swarming with penguins, so every minute was spent watching these gorgeous little birds and enjoying their company.
Bringing our walk to an end, we met our boat on the beach and waited for the next crowd of tourists to disembark before we could get on board and make our way back towards Harberton House, where our tour continued with a talk about the history of the ranch and the many generations that kept it going. Read more on that here.
This is a difficult time for would-be Antarctic adventurers, with expeditions to the continent in the south being cancelled on a regular basis due to Covid-19 and the government’s regulations for ships that have an outbreak. Our trip was cancelled just two days before we were due to embark – read more on that here – but we made the decision to travel to Ushuaia regardless and we didn’t regret it.
We did a few things while we were in the southernmost city in the world. But if we had only gone walking with the penguins and done nothing else, the journey south was absolutely worth it.
Recommended Reading: Away with the Penguins
In September 2021, John and I did a road trip around Iceland’s ring road – an incredible journey that will be documented on Travel Polar in the near future. While we were driving, we decided to listen to an ebook. We chose Away with the Penguins by Hazel Prior as a way of getting ourselves excited about our upcoming journey south. The book tells the story of Veronica, an elderly lady whose life has become quite mundane. But, on watching a documentary about penguins, she decides to travel to Antarctica herself – imposing herself on the objecting scientists who work with the Adélie penguins.
Of all the books I read in 2021, it was by far my favourite. It’s such a beautiful and heartwarming story that would make anyone want to visit a penguin rookery. You can purchase the book via the link below. Just so you are aware, I get a very small commission on any purchase made through this link – at no extra cost to you. But I’d like to make it clear that I will never post an affiliate link unless I highly recommend the product.
Purchase ‘Away with the Penguins’ at the link below: