It was our coldest morning yet as we weaved between a dozen swarthy construction workers paving the bumpy road to the end of the world on the island of Tierra Del Fuego. As I tried and failed to suck water through the frozen tube of my water pack it suddenly seemed less surprising that this hostile island was one of the final stops in humankind’s steady trickle across the planet, with our ancestors pitching up a mere 10,000 years ago.
We gave the men a numb thumbs up of appreciation and meant it. Unpaved roads had seemed idyllic when planning our route from the comfort of our sofa, but after a hundred kilometres of spine realigning corrugation and a face full of dust we craved the sweet smoothness of asphalt.
It would take something rather special to tempt us into a 30km detour off this virgin highway…something big and feathery with fishy breath.
We’d heard that the only colony of King Penguins outside of the subantarctic islands could be found on the banks of the callously named Bahía Inútil (Useless Bay to early British explorers). At close to a metre high they are second in stature only to their closest relative, the Emperor Penguin, and in my eyes just as regal.
After a few kilometres, we passed a lonely estancia and the unusual sight of a rosy-faced man in a full chef’s outfit. Pulling over to confirm that we weren’t on a wild goose (or rather penguin) chase, estancia chef Ignacio welcomed us into the warm worker’s cabin, replete with log-burner and table laid for ten. We’d barely reached the fire before he returned with warm bread and tea. Ignacio wasn’t sure about his feathery neighbours, he had never seen them, but sent us back into the wind with a packet of biscuits, the promise of evening tea, and toasty toes.
Arriving on the shores of Bahía Inútil, we were warmly greeted by the matriarchal Cecilia Durán Gafo and her daughter Aurora, with a hot cup of coffee (friendliness seems as bountiful as sheep in these parts). This colony’s habitat falls on a 25,000-acre farm, owned by Cecelia and her husband and in this, the penguins have been very lucky. In 2010, realising they had some smartly dressed residents at the bottom of their garden they made the decision to set up Parque Pingüino Rey to protect the birds and educate visitors about them. It was a family affair, Aurora, an architect, designed the eco-friendly visitor centre while her sister, a lawyer, certified the organisation. Within months it was up and running.
King Penguins haven’t always been so well looked after. In the 19th and 20th century this beautiful bird was insatiably hunted for its oil, blubber, eggs and skin, resulting in the extermination of many colonies. Populations have happily rebounded with the banning of commercial hunting and they are now listed as a species of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Today the penguins face new threats from introduced species such as the American Mink and from well-meaning but ignorant tourists who disturb their colonies in a bid to take the best Insta photo.
Layering up with down jackets to rival a baby penguin we walked to the first wooden hide which had the dual effect of rendering us invisible to the penguins while thankfully blocking the winds. Around 50m beyond the hide was an area known as the creche where a group of brown and comically fluffy chicks were watched over by a number of wearisome adults undergoing their moult. The difference in appearance between the young and adult birds is so startling it’s hard to blame early European explorers for naming them as an entirely different species, the Wooly Penguin.
Tearing ourselves away from these snoozing fluff balls we moved onto the next group made up of preening partners (breeding pairs are monogamous) lined along the pebble beach. The peace was occasionally interrupted by small tiffs and comically slow promenades along the beach in a manner not dissimilar to Sam and me after a day in the saddle. I was spellbound.
Parque Pingüino Rey now receives around 7000 visitors a year and works hard to ensure the penguins remain unaffected by their eager fans. Numbers down to the hide are restricted and it is forbidden to take food down to the area which can attract predators to the colony. Tourists are not the only visitors to the park, it also forms an important and convenient hub for scientists from around the world to study this species and many school and university students visit the park for free as part of their studies into biology, conservation and sustainable tourism.
Under their careful custodianship, Cecelia and her family have seen the nascent colony grow from just eight birds in 2010 to 123 today. A fact they are rightly proud of. You can tell from the enthusiasm in Aurora’s voice as she delivers the introductory talk to the eighth group of tourists that day, how much she cares for these birds as if they are a part of her own family. For Cecelia, her greatest joy comes not just from seeing the penguins thrive but from sharing these special birds with others. She hopes for a future in which visitors and residents alike continue to nurture a respect for not just the penguins but the natural environment of the whole island.
As we head back up the track the bullying Fuegan wind blew me off my bike for the third time that day. I didn’t care… I would detour twice the distance to meet this inspiring family and their feathery friends.
For more information about Parque Pingüino Rey visit their website.
King Penguin Fact File:
Reproduction: An elaborate dance-off is followed by the laying of a single egg and a period of shared incubation. Whilst breeding pairs are monogamous, the penguins rarely mate with the same partner the following season.
Conservation Status: Least Concern
Why are they awesome: The king penguin generally dives down to around 50 metres in pursuit of fish and squid, but will sometimes descend as deep as 300 metres!
IUCN Red List (Oct, 2017)
Wildscreen Arkive (Oct, 2017)