By Marcela Gómez
Photos: Demian Colman
This time of year, the icy beaches of Martillo Island, located in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, may be empty as Patagonian winds whip across their eighty acres, but the beaches will echo with their annual din in just a month. In September, when the first rays of spring sunshine begin to warm the waters and coasts, male Magellanic penguins, first one by one and then in larger groups, will arrive to ready their nests.
The females will follow soon after. For the next forty days, the pairs will take turns incubating their eggs and searching for food. The chicks will hatch between the first and third weeks of November, and for the next one hundred days the island will bustle with activity as the parents patiently feed the rotund babies and teach them to walk as they grow into young adults.
In summer, when the region’s high tourism season kicks into gear and boats depart daily from Ushuaia Bay, the plumage of penguin chicks begins to change. This unmistakable sign of impeding adulthood signals their imminent departure.
We could see all of this one March morning as we disembarked on Martillo Island’s rocky beach, near Harberton Ranch. The wind blew strong and cold, but the excitement of walking among hundreds of newborn chicks kept us from feeling it. Some mothers were still keeping their chicks warm as fathers hurried to bring pieces of straw to reinforce the nests; young penguins whose plumage was already changing were playing and making their first approaches to the water. Their anxious parents seemed to be giving them lessons in swimming, hunting, and general survival, while bold adolescents were already itching to challenge the ocean.
This represents life here in Harberton, an enchanting ranch in the wilds of Tierra del Fuego (on the Argentinean side of Patagonia), where the beginning meets the end and life and death walk side by side on these shores. This is a place where hundreds of penguins congregate to ensure the survival of their species on our planet, but it is also a spot where marine giants (whales, dolphins, and sharks) live out their final days.
We left Ushuaia early in a tourist bus that followed the National Route 3 to the Andes junction, where we turned down an unpaved road. The first part of the journey runs through the mountains, skirting sea resorts. We can almost reach out through the window and touch the forests of Chilean cherry, also known as the Tierra del Fuego oak. After the junction, the landscape opens up into the famous peatlands, an invaluable ecosystem in this part of the world that regulates the Earth’s carbon cycle and the hydrological cycle of the southern valleys.
The journey encapsulates Patagonia in a single day: a place of vast grasslands, legendary stories of valiant explorers who risked everything to carry their view of the world to the indigenous peoples, whom they felt needed “civilizing,” and fauna, a great deal of wild fauna that still claims these vast lands as its own.
On Martillo, the guide tells us that the Magellanic penguins came to this island in 1976, establishing the southernmost nesting site of this species in Argentina. That year, a lost pair wandered onto these shores and flourished, to the point that there were 519 pairs in 1992 and some 2,000 pairs by 2005. This was a good place to settle: the island soil is soft and rich in organic content, so the penguins can easily build their nests, which extend three feet below the surface.
Satellite monitoring shows scientists that the families plunge into the Atlantic and migrate north when winter begins, returning to these lands when the climate warms again. By mid-October, the majority of pairs have reunited and the nests are ready.
The colony of Magellanic penguins is not the only one on Martillo Island, nor is it the focus of the scientists here. What is of more interest is the only South American reproductive colony of gentoo penguins, which have been on the island since 1980, when the first pair arrived. By the spring of 2003 there were nine pairs and the numbers continue to increase every year. The gentoo are taller (they stand some 35 inches tall, in contrast to their 18-inch Magellanic neighbors) and they are faster under water, reaching speeds of twenty-two miles an hour.
The chicks remain in the nest for around thirty days, after which there is a curious “chick daycare” arrangement, in which adults take turns caring for the newborns. The chicks’ plumage begins to resemble that of young adults and they first take to the sea at eighty, or at most one hundred, days after they are born.
Martillo could be considered the playground or even the planet of the penguins. Even as we are learning about the gentoos, we meet a lone pair of South American emperor penguins, well known from the documentary March of the Penguins; the emperor penguin does not build a nest, but incubates a single egg cradled atop its feet. The guide remarks that Southern rockhopper penguins have also been sighted.
For tourists to Ushuaia, the only possible way to reach Martillo Island and walk among the penguins is to take a land excursion to Harberton Ranch; otherwise, viewing is limited to what can be seen from boats that approach the island. The Ranch is the departure point for a walk among the penguins, but it is also a historic site that played a decisive role in the first years of the English colony in Argentina.
The bus takes us to the original buildings where, in 1886, legendary missionary Thomas Bridges founded the first ranch in Tierra del Fuego —now a National Historic Monument— after leaving the Ushuaia Anglican Mission. Bridges named the ranch in honor of his wife, who hailed from Harberton in Devon (England). He came to these lands with the intention of bringing the Gospel to indigenous peoples, but he also had a personal interest that occupied all his spare time: creating a dictionary of the Yámana language. The ranch has been in the family for generations. His son, Esteban Lucas Bridges, wrote The Uttermost Part of the Earth, in which he relates the story of his childhood, describes the Yámana, and tells of the family’s difficulties in publishing the dictionary in Europe. His great-grandson, Thomas Goodall, married U.S. biologist Rae Natalie Prosser (deceased), a restless, inquisitive, and systematic scientist.
Prosser showed us the other side of the coin, the end of all things, the representation of death in Harberton. Here, while hundreds of chicks greet life, giant whales, dolphins, and sharks return from extended transoceanic journeys to end up drifting lifelessly. No scientist has yet solved this mystery, so they can only gather and store the millions of bones that clutter the beaches.
It was Rae who began the collection that became the Acatushun Museum of Southern Birds and Mammals. Every year, young people from around the world come here to study and search for answers to a variety of biological questions. The museum presents an opportunity to learn about marine birds and mammals and get a close-up look at the bones plucked from this extraordinary place. It may have been chosen by the animals for their final days, or ocean currents may have carried them here, corralling all the bones of these traveling giants in one place.
We have yet to see another symbol of this site: the “flag trees,” one-sided trees shaped by the strong winds that sweep in from the southwest over the gentle rolling hills that bear witness to the ancient glacier that once covered these lands. As the bus drives away, the bent trunks call to mind another planet, perhaps another dimension. In this place where the beginning meets the end, birth and death are casual companions.