Ushuaia is the southernmost city in South America and a gateway to Antarctica. Most cruise ships heading to Antarctica leave from the harbor of Ushuaia. We shared one same desire as most people on board these vessels, ‘to see the Penguins’. So imagine the smiles we had on our faces when we found that there is a Penguin colony not very far from Ushuaia where you can actually WALK with the penguins in their natural habitat. We immediately signed ourselves on the next departing Pira tour that took us to Martillo island where these little creatures were.
Getting to Isla Martillo with Pira tours
There are two ways to get to the island of Martillo, one is by boat starting from Ushuaia or by a bus to Estancia Haberton followed by a very short boat ride. We combined both and went by bus and took the boat on the way back, best of both the worlds. The bus ride takes you through the stunning Valle de lobos and Valle Hermoso where the Grand Andean mountain range end leaving behind the finely carved valleys, rimmed by craggy snow covered mountains through which gushing streams run.
Pira tour buses start in Ushuaia
As we trudged on we saw trees tilted to a side, shaped by the Antarctic winds. We were thoroughly surprised and happy that it was a calm day at the sea today. After over an hour on the bus we arrived at the point where we had to switch from the bus to a boat. Pira tour is strongly driven by conservation and only take small groups with less than 20 people on the island. This helps in keeping the effect of humans on this fragile penguin colony to a minimum. The on premise marine museum kept us thoroughly entertained while we waited for our group’s turn. The museum has all kinds of information about whales and the other sea mammals of the southern ocean. There were well preserved skeletons of whales and dolphins that were washed away on the shores of Argentina.
Whale and mammal museum at Harberton
Riding a small boat to the island of Penguins
Then it was our turn to board and set sail on a tiny boat past little wooden houses of the Harberton Ranch. With sun shining on our backs and the chill of the beagle channel breeze on our face, it was a perfect day. Along the journey we saw lot of birds and even a pod of Sei whales swimming next to our boat. Seeing them swim in close quarters of our boat, often breaching and showing their tails, and being themselves in the wild water already made our day exciting. It also reminded us of our time in Mexico when we saw whales while looking for a hidden beach.
A tiny harbor were we took of for Isla Martillo
Then we saw a pale brown and green land emerge on the horizon, it was scattered with black and white dots. Our happiness knew no bounds when we registered they were penguins. We saw hundred of Magellanic penguins along the shore and then as our eyes dialed to the spectacle we spotted many more swimming in the sea. Amongst all of these penguin rookeries the Gento penguins species really stand out. They have a bright orange red bill and are visibly taller than the Magellanic penguins. We made a very composed disembarkment off the boat so not to startle the penguins
Hundreds of Penguins on the island shores
Gentoo Penguins have distinguishing bright orange bills
Can you spot the burrow this Penguin is guarding?
Walking with the Penguins
Once on the shore we walked the marked wooden trails to see the nesting colonies. It was southern summer so there were a lot of breeding Penguins on the island. It was fascinating to see all the action around us. While only the female lays an egg, both parents take turns to incubate and tend to it. When the egg hatches the parents feed them by regurgitating the food they have been eating for the last few days. The newly hatched penguin chicks have fine feathers that are very insulating but only work when dry. So they keep to the land until they shed this away and grow a new one. Once this molting is complete they take to the sea and go south to colder waters of the Antarctic.
A molting young penguin
Yes, Penguins == smiles 🙂
It did seem a bit odd to see them surrounded by green bushes contrary to the image we had that is usually painted of snow and glaciers around them. But it is exactly this part that makes seeing them at Isla Martillo so unique and special. When it was time to leave, one thing was certain that the penguin viewing experience left us longing to see these creatures again. Our return journey to Ushuaia was on a bigger boat that took us on the Beagle channel. The channel is teeming with wildlife and the nearby snow covered Darwin range stared back from a distance,. There were seal colonies playful on the tiny rocky islands, large Cormorants that look similar to Penguins in their black and white skin and many more birds that we couldn’t even name. We sailed past the famous Les Eclaireurs lighthouse before finally arriving in Ushuaia. What a memorable day!
Wildlife of the Beagle channel and the snow covered Darwin range
- While there are many tours that take you close to the Penguin colony, Pira tour is the only one that has permissions to get off on the island and allow you to walk with the Penguins.
- The tour costs 2500pesos, about $160USD(as of early 2017) and can be booked online or at the Pira tour booth across the information center in Ushuaia.
- Most guides speak both Spanish and English which is very useful since they tell a lot about Ushuaia, the landscapes and the fauna during the bus and the boat ride later.
- Pira tour themselves have multiple different tours to the island. We would recommend the one where you can combine the bus journey through Andean scenery with the return on the boat across the Beagle channel. Win win situation!
- The road itself gets constant hammering from the rough Atlantic winds and the flaky weather it brings along, so expect a bumpy ride.
- There are no refreshments or coffee/drinks included in the price of the ticket. So pack along a picnic or be prepared to buy them on the boat ride back.
- The marine museum is an added bonus and is very informative. Tip: If you ask nicely you can be part of a short behind the scene tour and get an insight into what goes into the process of preserving the skeletons of the whales and other large mammals.