Gord Turner

Gord Turner

Gord Turner: Once upon a penguin island

Turner talks about penguins in his latest column

How things change! Throughout most of 2020, we hunkered down because of the coronavirus and have traveled nowhere. This time last year, though, we were in Antarctica and southern South America searching for penguins.

You’d think we would have had enough of penguins. After all, we saw them from afar all the way through the Antarctic islands off that continent’s northwest peninsula. We also saw them, though not many, at Gypsy Cove about 8 kilometres from Stanley in the Falkland Islands.

We saw colonies of penguins on the shores of Antarctica itself — black and white creatures we could look at through binoculars. We stared at penguin dots on the sand and ice, which we zoomed in on with our cameras. But people who’d been there before told us about traveling to penguin locations and being surrounded by these clown-like creatures. We wanted to get so close to penguins we could touch them.

To that end, when we arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile, the city which is the second-farthest south in the world, we signed up for a trip to a penguin island. We were told it was a place where we were guaranteed to be able to wander among these creatures.

So, on a windswept day, we left the comfort of our cruise ship and took a bus to a ferry boat called the Melinka. Its task was to carry us several kilometres to Magdalena Island, a one-kilometre long chunk of rock with bits of grass on the Strait of Magellan.

As we reached Magdalena Island, the wind picked up and a cold rain, almost in tiny ice pellets, met us as we prepared to disembark. Though it was summer that far south, we had on sweaters, rainproof jackets, toques, and gloves, so we were ready for the weather on the island.

The ferry boat bellied up to the shore and dropped its broad green gangway. At first we thought we might have to walk through a foot or so of water to get to the shore, but the gangway reached just far enough. We scurried ashore with the wind whipping our clothing awry and causing sea water to splash us a bit.

Thousands of penguins stood up to greet us.

Indeed, there were penguins everywhere, tiny Magellantic creatures decked out in white and black, although the young were mostly grey with some white. They were standing about, they were scrambling along the shore, and they were squatting in the entries to their burrows. None of the 120,000 jammed onto the island showed any fear of us humans. In fact, they seemed curious about our presence.

We couldn’t touch them, but often they were near enough to do so. As we rambled along the island trail, groups of penguins crossed the trail in front of us. They were either going down to the rocky beach or up to their burrow locations. We were cordoned off from the fields of penguins, but the rope only stopped us humans. It didn’t stop the penguins from going about where they wanted.

Because of lower tides, our boat had gone out to deeper water while we toured and talked to the penguins. A few people walked around the island, but we returned to the landing spot and froze while we waited for our boat to return from deeper waters.

Three penguins waddled down to salute us as we boarded our boat for the return trip to civilization.

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Two penguins seen along the way during Gord Turner's trip to Antarctica. Photo submitted

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