Punta Tombo Penguins
Colonies of Magellanic penguins live along ten miles of Patagonia’s forbidding, rocky coastline. In the bright morning sun, bobbing on the ocean like so many black and white ducks, the penguins must elude a rarely visible gauntlet of predatory sea lions to return to the seaweed-strewn beach and begin their climb to the nesting ground. Popping up out of the water at the shoreline, they begin the familiar hobbling walk that we find so irresistible, looking like little tuxedoed toddlers, barely able to keep from toppling over, as they climb the loose gravel away from the beach.
The nesting area is a barren plateau, pocked by shallow pits, many with penguins sitting in them. Dried tufts of grass and some ground-hugging prickly evergreens are the only nearby vegetation, and they shake in the steady wind that has piled up every loose feather against them. The air is pungent with a fishy tang, and the braying calls of the penguins that often end in a reedy blast sounding like a broken kazoo played by a child. (The Jackass penguins of South Africa, named for their call, are closely related.) Mated pairs find each other, and stretch and posture in greeting. Every year they find the same hollow in the hard soil and jealously defend it from any penguin straying too near. An erect irate penguin, looking as tall as it can, scurries, flipper-wings flapping, pecking viciously at the neck of an intruding bird, being joined by others outraged by the attempted escape across their meager territories. Meanwhile other penguins just sit or stand, eyes closing in the sunlight, indifferent to the fray.
Today the only other wildlife nearby on the peninsula seems to be a small, loose herd of shaggy, long-limbed guanacos grazing at a distance from the noisy penguin colonies, and some small finches searching for seeds and insects along the gravelly ground. The giant petrels, flying death to penguin chicks, know that there are none yet, and hunt elsewhere for now.
Looking out to sea, the breakers over the offshore shallows, are glaringly snow white, unlike those times when oil spills have turned them muddy brown. In twenty years the colonies have dwindled by twenty per cent, scourged by oil and a decrease in sea life. Their population of millions makes some think them safe, yet to vanish at this rate shows they are highly sensitive to the effects of man. Let us hope we learn to change our ways so that the ways of the penguins can remain unchanged on their rugged coast forever.
© 2009 Michael Yanega
16 February 2009
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