As mentioned already in my last few posts, I came to Chile this time with the main purpose of flying down to Antarctica. In order to make sure that I wouldn’t miss the chartered flight and cruise, I decided to arrive in the Punta Arenas in southern Chile a couple days earlier. There is not all that much to do in Punta Arenas so I took the opportunity to go to the King Penguin Park in Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego to see the king penguins since I won’t see them on my Antarctica cruise. King penguins are normally found on the Falkland Islands or other sub-antarctic islands at the northern reaches of Antarctica (such as Crozet Island, Macquarie Island, Prince Edward Islands etc) with the exception of a small colony in Bahia Inutile near Punta Arenas in southern Chile. There are two main ways to reach the King Penguin Park from Punta Arenas. The first way involves crossing the Magellan Strait by ferry to the town of Porvenir (about 2.5 hours) or by driving around the Magellan Strait (which takes double the time). From Provenir, it takes another 2 hours bumping along a dirt road to reach the King Penguin Park in Bahia Inutile. The second way, which is what I did, involves taking the morning 15-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Provenir and then driving almost 2 hours to the park and then returning to Punta Arenas on the late afternoon flight. This is by far the more civilized way to go but you will need to pre-arrange a driver to wait for you at the Porvenir airport. Porvenir is a tiny town with less than 5,000 inhabitants and poorly maintained roads, so don’t expect any taxi rank at the airport. Make sure you have pre-arranged transport, whether it is a tour or a private car, or else you will be stuck at the airport. If you fly there like myself, you will be one of the first people to enter the park when it opens at 9am in the morning because the first car ferry doesn’t leave Punta Arenas until 9am. The King Penguin Park only takes a few hours to visit and as I was leaving, there were people who came by ferry waiting to enter. The park limits the number of people allowed inside at any one time. So if you arrive later in the morning, you may have to wait until someone leaves before you are allowed entrance. I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with driver-guide Cristian who speaks perfect English and showed me around in his van.
En route to the King penguin park, Cristian made a brief stop at the new Stromatolite Park in Laguna de Los Cisnes (not far from Porvenir airport) which is one of six places in the world where these geo-biological systems are located. Stromatolites mean “layered rocks” and are built by a type of bacteria over millions of years. They look like rocks but are actually living fossils and are evidence of the earliest life on our planet. Billions of years ago, the air on our planet was only 1% oxygen. Over time, the stromatolites pumped oxygen into the oceans which then released oxygen into the air. Thanks to stromatolites, life was able to flourish on earth and we have the oxygen we breathe today.
Parque Pingüino Rey Park (King Penguin Park) was set up to protect the small colony of King Penguins in Bahia Inutile. It started when a group of 8 king penguins arrived here in 2010 to breed and subsequently returning the following years. The colony is now more than 50-strong. This private park promotes the protection and conservation of the king penguin as well as the natural and cultural heritage of Tierra del Fuego. We were allowed to observe the interactions, courtships, and antics of the king penguin from the viewing station a distance of 50 meters away so as not to disturb them.
King penguins are the second largest species of penguin. They are about 25% smaller than the emperor penguins but look very similar. The main differences, other than size, are the colors on the cheek patch and at the top of the chest. The king penguin has more vibrant colors with bright orange markings along the side of the lower mandible as well as the cheek patch and orange-yellow plumage at the top of the chest. The male and female king penguins look exactly the same and stand at 70 to 100 cm tall. The males are slightly larger than the females and have different calls. King penguins are serially monogamous in that they only have one mate each year but they are unlikely to choose the same mate in the next breeding cycle. Like turtles, they also return to the same place to mate. They usually start breeding at 5-6 years old and they don’t make nests. Instead they take turns carrying the egg around on top of their feet which hatches around 60 days after being laid. The chicks look completely different with brown fuzz and are carried around and taken care of by the parents for another 40 days. After that the chicks join other chicks in a creche and keep each other warm. King penguins, like all penguins, are a very loud and vocal group. It was fun watching them interact, waddle around, and chattering very noisily. King penguins are by far the most colorful and attractive penguins I have encountered.
There is the option to stay overnight near the King Penguin Park at the newly renovated 19th century Estancia Caleta Josefina. I only managed to stop here for lunch after visiting the penguins but perhaps if I were to ever come again, I would stay here for a bit. The staff will tell you about the history of Tierra del Fuego as well as the traditional sheep rearing and sheering process. It is a relaxing place to experience the landscape of the pampas and the remoteness of it all.
From Provenir, I made my way back to Punta Arenas to embark on my long awaited Antarctica fly cruise. Stay tuned!
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