“I want to see some penguins,” my sister Kathi insisted, “Patagonia is as close as I’ll probably get Antarctica.” We were planning a trip with our mother. The three of us hadn’t traveled overseas together since Kathi and I were kids—in the summer of 1970 we drove across Western Europe in a candy-apple-red Volkswagen Square Back, I was 3, Kathi 8. Mom wanted to go to Patagonia. So we booked it—13 days at the tip of South America, ending in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. On our second to last day we would visit a penguin rookery at the end of the world.
We arrived in Ushuaia after a 12-hour bus ride from Punta Arenas, Chile, that covered 500 kilometers of roads, some of them dirt, and a rustic ferry crossing of the wind-swept Straights of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego, the last landmass before Antarctica. We arrived after dark. The icy wind howled down from the mountains. It was my birthday so we celebrated with a bottle of Fin del Mundo Malbec and dinner at a local family restaurant.
The next morning we boarded a bus to Estancia Harberton, at the very end of the Beagle Channel, the uttermost ranch in the world. From there we piled into a Zodiac boat and set out across the channel to Martillo Island. The sun was warm, but the wind cut into us.
Why do we love penguins? Is it because they were a tuxedo? Or because they waddle? Or because they when they flap their flightless wings we think it’s funny?
As we landed on the island a large group of Magellanic penguins, with a few Gentoo and Kings mixed in, were having a beach party. They lay about in various stages of relaxation and repose, grooming each other, sleeping. Some stood, their backs to the icy wind and their fronts to the rare sunshine. A skua, a predatory bird that looks like a dark seagull, soared overhead looking for eggs and unattended young. The penguins were nonplussed by the skua, or by us. We crouched and lay on the ground to get the best pictures.
We walked across the island to the beach on the windward side. Two King penguins, with golden necks, stood grooming each other. The smaller Magellanics swam in the waves. Penguins are flightless and awkward on land because their tail is too close to their legs, but they are highly adapted to swimming and diving in the water.
Some of the young were interested, one little guy walked right up to us, like we were his friends, then continued on across the trail. To my right a penguin stood on a log seemingly preaching to his pals below him, squawking and moving his head to make a point.
“People are fascinated by penguins just like they are with Loons,” mom said, referring to the Minnesota state bird where Kathi and I grew up. Similarly black and white with pointy beaks, loons are an iconic symbol of the northern Minnesota lake country, where we have canoed together. If they stood upright and were flightless they could be penguins
We were only allowed 60 minutes with the little birds. Soon it was over and we were headed back across the Beagle Channel.
Maybe we like penguins simply because they remind us of ourselves. Maybe I like to travel with my family because they, too, remind me of myself, and how I came to be me.