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Penguin Species Series #2 - The Magellanic Penguin

Guest Blogger - Charles Bergman


Magellanic Penguin, Spheniscus magellanicus

Cool Fact: The Magellanic penguin is named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. When they circumnavigated the world, Magellan’s sailors were the first Europeans to see these penguins. In 1520, sailing south along the Atlantic coast of Argentina, they reported huge numbers of flightless birds. The birds looked like goslings, according to one sailor’s journal, and were extremely fat.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, British sailors gave a strange name to the Magellanic penguin. They called it “arse feet”—which means “ass feet.” No kidding! It’s because penguin’s legs are so far back, near their bums. Until recently, they were called “jackass penguins,” because their call sounds like the hoarse braying of a donkey.

Where It’s Found: Coastal areas of Patagonia (both Argentina and Chile), Tierra del Fuego, Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas)

Crucial Facts:

· IUCN Red List Status: Near Threatened

· Population: 1.2 to 1.6 million pairs, trends suggest declining by 30% in Argentinian colonies recently

· Life Span: up to 26 years

· Life at Sea: can dive 160 feet, swim 15 mph, and, if they drink sea water, can excrete the salt through glands in their eyes

· Mating: monogamous

· Nesting: burrows in the ground or under bushes usually 2 eggs

· Preferred Food: anchovies, sardines, young hake

· Threats: oil spills and pollution, fishing industry, climate change

First Sighting: December 2, 2005, Cape Horn, Tierra del Fuego

Our Story:

It’s the “fin del mundo,” the captain announced on the ship’s intercom, “the end of the world.” He explained that, despite rough seas, we were going to try to land on Cape Horn.

I went to the rear deck to watch the crew hoist the black Zodiacs—inflatable small vessels that would take us ashore—into the wild sea. White caps broke all around us. The notorious Drake Passage begins here, at the southern tip of South America. Beyond Cape Horn were the stormiest seas in the world. In these seas, sailors used to say, there were no laws and no God.

A crew member stood in a Zodiac as a crane lifted it off the deck and splashed it in the sea. Waves swept over the transom and around the crew member’s feet. I could hear him scream in Spanish, “Ni siquiera.” No way! We were not going to land on Cape Horn today.

The ship was called the Mare Australis, the “Southern Sea.” It was my first time in Tierra del Fuego and I took the Mare Australis from Ushuaia in Argentina to Punta Arenas, in Chile. I had been reading voraciously about these waters. In 1833, Charles Darwin was on the H.M.S. Beagle, in such a powerful storm south of Tierra del Fuego that he thought they might capsize. I felt that I was following the tracks of Charles Darwin as we traveled through these waters.

The captain announced that it was too dangerous to land. We would, however, try to “round the Cape,” he said, “one of the great sailing feats in the world.”

I watched Cape Horn from the rear deck as we headed out into the Drake. I could see the big statue of an albatross on the high promontory. That’s when I saw a group of about 20 penguins swimming in the storm. They looked small in that big sea, dark shapes being slapped about by the sea’s surging waves, with short necks and pointed beaks. My first Magellanic penguins.

Magellanics are one of most abundant penguins in the world. My wife Susan and I don’t consider them one of the most beautiful penguins, but we never tire of them. For me they will always be associated with the wild seas of the Drake Passage as we rounded Cape Horn. Penguins are creatures at the end of the world. That live on the edge. That inhabit boundaries. That lead us to great adventures.

This new penguin series includes stories, information, and photos not yet published. Read about our quest to see all 18 of the world’s penguin species in my book “Every Penguin in the World.”




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