On Tuesday morning, I got up early - about 7:30 (In Ushuaia, anything before 8:00 is considered ridiculous) and took advantage of the free breakfast at the hostel. It consisted of watery OJ, small pieces of dry toast and some really, really good croissants. There were some condiments as well - butter, a bowl of really dark marmalade which looked kind of gross, and some crème de leche, which turned out to be a lot like caramel. Good stuff.
I got cleaned up and headed down to the tourist pier, where I booked a sightseeing tour/excursion, the highlight of which is a trip to Martillo Island in the Beagle Channel where you actually get to walk on a beach with penguins. The prospect was too enticing to pass up.
The "tourist pier" contains a small area where a number of tour companies are bunched together, offering all types of tours and treks into the surrounding areas. Most specialize in boat tours around the channel with a cruise by a sea-lion colony, or around the light house, or some "trekking" (i.e. walking on a beaten down path) on some island. Only three or four companies offer visits to the penguin colony, and only Piratour, the company I chose, boasts the ability to set foot on the island. Now of course, they are the most expensive, but in my opinion, if you're going to spend the time and money to visit some penguins, it's worth an extra 15 bucks to walk around with them.
At 9:30 our cute little guide named Vicki gathered a group of about 14 of us together and led the way to our bus. I sat in the back, next to a very pretty girl and, unfortunately, her boyfriend. It was ok though, because they were both really cool - turned out the girl (and I'm probably going to get this wrong, but I think her name was Marseille) was originally from Argentina but spoke English like she'd gone to school or spent a considerable time in the US, and the guy (also named Matt) was from Indiana. They were good people.
We took off, heading east out of town toward a placed called Estancia Harberton. Vicki was a good tour guide - speaking very good English and Spanish. As we passed by beautiful mountains she would add a little commentary - just enough to be helpful, and not enough to be annoying. We passed by a huge flat area in between a couple large peaks. The entire floor was a deep red color - Vicki explained it was peat moss, which has been growing here for hundreds of years - the result of long-gone glaciers pushing nutrients around in the valleys. Cool. We traveled on National Road #3, the southern-most highway in the world, for about 30 minutes, and then turned down Provincial Road 'J' - a dirt road leading south.
Vicki told us there would be three stops. We made our first in front of a large beaver dam. We didn't see any actual beavers - she mentioned they only come out during dusk and dawn. Apparently they've become a real problem. Years ago the Canadians brought them along for some reason, and they've infested the entire region. There are so many they are a real threat to the forest - destroying acres of trees and re-routing streams and rivers. Apparently the government understands the problem, but hasn't done much to help. They've offered a 15 peso reward for every beaver tail - not much of an incentive for anyone to take advantage of. Vicki was cute in her information sharing - as we started up again she turned around and said "So... how do you kill a beaver? You go and make a hole in his dam. Then he will come out to repair it. Then you shoot him." Everyone laughed.
We drove on to our second stop - a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. We got out to walk around on the shore - there were just as many mussel shells as there were rocks on the ground. It was pretty - the shells being a pearly bluish-purple, making the ground quite beautiful. We all took some pictures, and remarked at the strong, cold wind coming in off the water. We had a beautiful day. The rain and snow of the last couple days had moved on, and we had blue sky - but it was still cold.
Our third stop was to see the "flag trees" near the lake. I didn't realize we were actually stopping here when I booked the ticket, but I was really glad to learn we had it on the agenda. I'd seen some pictures of the trees on some post cards, and really wanted to see them first hand. When we arrived, they were even better than advertised. The trees are growing on top of a large hill to the north of the lake, and are exposed to the constant, strong southwest wind coming off the lake. To adapt, they've all grown sideways with their trunks and branches pointing to the northwest, away from the wind. One large one is right next to the road - it's the postcard shot, but absolutely worthy of it. It was nearly worth the money of the tour to see this.
However, we moved on, driving another 10 minutes to reach Harberton. It looked like a small farm - lots of equipment and buildings resembling a farming operation in the states. It didn't have an official "tourist reception area" or pamphlets of well-worded propaganda - it was more like going into someone's home that happened to be in a good location. Don't misunderstand though, the residents definitely took advantage of the situation. Once we got to the ranch we had time to take a nature break, and then visit the "restaurant", which looked like a large living room with a bunch of tables. We had a choice of several different types of homemade cakes and cookies, along with coffee and soda. They were smart about their position.
Anyway, after about 15 minutes, we headed outside to the little pier behind the main house, where a small boat waited for us. We all got inside, and our captain (and he looked like a captain - stocking hat, weathered face, white beard, heavy blue coat) set us off. Once we started off, Vicki told us about the rules, and why we were able to actually set foot on the island. Apparently this tour group, with the help of the people at Harberton, has been granted the ability from the government to take tourists on the island as an ongoing experiment on the effects of tourism on the animals. Only this tour company could do it, and only within certain rules. They were simple - keep your voices low, no sudden movements, don't feed them, don't try to take one home, etc.
Anyway, it took about 15 minutes to cross the choppy expanse of water between us and Martillo Island. I'm glad I don't get sea sick. I was talking to Vicki and my trip came up, along with my journey to Antarctica - She said it was good that this didn't bother me, as the Drake Passage is apparently a frickin nightmare. Yikes. She talked to us about the two different types of penguins we'd see on the island. The majority are Magellanic penguins which are pretty much all black, including their beaks and feet, with some white around the head. There are also twelve families of Gentoo penguins, about the same size as the others, but discernable by their orange feet and beaks.
As we approached the island I looked out the window and could see the black figures of the little birds on the beach. It was a pretty cool feeling. We slowed down and coasted to a stop right on the beach. The boat had a flat bottom - allowing us to slide the front end right up on the small rocks. The exit was a little tricky, so it took a while to get off, and I was at the back of the boat. While we were waiting, the captain motioned for me to jump up with him where he opened his door and gave me a view of the entire beach. It was great. There were hundreds of penguins on the beach - many of them standing up, looking at us or looking out to the water, many were lying on their bellies, just hanging out and some were in the water diving around looking for little fish. As I finally got out of the boat, a few of the penguins near us had stood up to get a good look at us. The majority just laid there and really didn't seem to mind. It was a tremendous feeling. We got to walk up on the beach, and into the colony a little way. We then sat down and started taking pictures.
I was near the end, close to Vicki. I asked her to take my picture, and she motioned for me to follow her. We moved toward a group of them, and very close to one guy in particular. Now, I'm conscious of being larger than the average human and I really didn't want to scare them. I'd read that if one gets scared and runs, they all will - I would have felt terrible to have been the cause of that. However, I kept moving and carefully sat down about three or four feet away from the nearest one. He was a fat little guy with some grey in his feathers. He just sat there lying on his belly - not minding me a bit.
They were all over - as I sat taking pictures, I looked all around the island. There were penguins behind us, up on a little ridge covered in grass, further up the island, out on the rocks... They were really cute (and I hate using that term in reference to anything but a female, but they were). A couple of them behind us looked a bit younger, and would at times look up into the sky and flap their little wings - it looked like they wanted to fly - like they wished they could.
There were other birds on the island as well - some crane-like, and some large hawk-like birds that Vicki said were the natural predators of the penguins. Predatory in that they steal the penguin's eggs if left unattended.
We walked around to a side of the island over the ridge where we saw another group of them. Vicki showed us their nests and where they go to lay eggs, and how they protect their young. She even showed us the flipper of a dead penguin, which looked like it had been left there for the tours as it was preserved like a rabbit's foot.
We were on the island for about 45 minutes and it flew by. As we headed back to the boat I looked at my watch and wondered what I'd be doing right now if I were back at work. It was Tuesday at about 1:00 pm here - meaning it was around 10:00 am back home - I'd probably be in our Team Lead meeting (hey, I thought about you guys...). Then I smiled to myself.
When we were on our way back to Harberton, I talked to Vicki for a while. She had studied Tourism at university, and was doing this as a summer job for experience in the industry. She had been able to work with the lead researcher on this project and had been coming out to the island once a day every day (except Sunday) since October. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said "something in Tourism, but it would be hard to beat this. It's a lot better than being in an office!" I had to laugh.