It was after hours and the sun was beginning to set. The park hours on the entrance clearly stated they were closed. However no gate stopped us from continuing forward. We wound down the dirt road through the rolling desert brush. Along the 20 mile stretch, signs were posted at every curve in the road: “Do not stop or get out of your vehicle”. I felt like I was on a safari adventure.
We pulled into the parking lot and peered around. So this is where they lived? The water was supposed to be near but we couldn’t see it. In the distance, I spotted a few motionless figures. Could it really be?
“Brad! I see penguins!”
He stared in their direction while letting out a mocking laugh. “Sheena, those aren’t penguins. Those are just statues”.
Oh silly me. And then they moved.
Curious by this strange new environment, I cracked open Nacho’s passenger door. Instantly Nacho was filled with crazy bellowing penguin hoots and hollers. Surely the park wouldn’t allow us to spend the night here, yet no one appeared to tell us otherwise. We started cooking dinner. Just as Nacho became a sauna inside with mysteriously fogged windows, there was a tap on the window. Damn.
The man outside introduced himself as the park ranger. “What are you doing? Have you gotten out of your vehicle?! Have you paid for park entrance? Are you sure you have not gotten out of your vehicle?”
With the promise that we would not exit our vehicle, we were granted permission to stay in the park for the evening. However, while pointing to his house he said “If you want to watch television you are welcome to come by my house”. I guess they would bend their own rules in the name of entertainment.
The following day felt like Christmas morning as a child. I could hardly contain myself.
For over a year, our goal had been to proceed South until we could not go any farther. We made it to Ushuaia but our drive in the Americas was far from over. Our final destination was Buenos Aires, 1,500 miles to the Northeast. As we drove up the Atlantic coast, we finally hung up our jackets and pulled back out our tank tops and shorts.
In the most unlikely of climates and terrain we found ourselves at Punta Tombo, the largest Magellanic penguin rookery outside of Antarctica. All around us, 250,000 breeding pairs of penguins were waddling in the brush and skinny dipping on the beach.
“You are the first ones in the park this morning. It is just you and the penguins! The penguins here have had a long journey and are very hungry. If they cross your path, please, don’t block them”. Do people really do that?
Everything I know about penguins was learned from the movie March of the Penguins. They march for months through the cold frigid winds, hungry and tired, only to find another cold torturous place to lay their eggs. Then, due to the frigid cold temperatures, they sit on their eggs for months, balanced between their pouch and feet. They sit and wait for as long as it takes for their spouse to return back with food. Then, they would repeat it all over again.
Yet, perhaps the penguins here hadn’t seen that film. They discovered much warmer places in the world to enjoy their winter. Dugout burrows covered the hillsides and everywhere we looked, penguins were scattered. The landscape was low lying desert brush and hamster-like mice scurried across the ground. Guanacos grazed. Everything was in harmony.
It was baby season when we arrived and all the baby penguins were two to three months old, losing their fluffy down, and weeks away from learning how to fish. In a few short months they’d begin their annual migration, lasting five to six months. As for this particular morning, various activities were going on. Penguins carried sticks across fields, families nestled under the brush, and some male penguins attempted to show their dominance, sword fighting with their beaks. Female penguins basked in the sun, grooming their babies while slowly getting ready for the day. Babies stood motionless, whining constantly, hungry and needy. And then like clockwork, the parents would head out in parties to the sea, ready to fish.
Indifferent to humans, they were so easy to watch. They had no personal bubble and loved examining us as much as we loved examining them. We crouched down low, looked at them eye to eye and said goodbye.