Patagonia provides a splendid opportunity to see a variety of wildlife, including penguins. Here’s everything that you need to know about visiting the penguins in Ushuaia…

Walking with Penguins in Ushuaia

A gentle noot noot drifts across the Patagonian breeze and a huge grin spreads across my face as a handful of penguins waddle by. In fact, I’d wager that it’s impossible to look at a penguin and not smile. I’ve just arrived at Martillo Island, which is a big draw to people who wish to see penguins in Ushuaia. Penguins visit the island each year to mate and raise their young. It provides a wonderful opportunity to see these quirky creatures in their natural habitat. Indeed, for an hour on Martillo Island I grinned continually.

What Penguins will I be able to see?

There are two species of penguin which inhabit the island but, if you are lucky, you might see a third…

Magellanic Penguins

Magellanic penguins are the smallest and these little guys reach 60-75cm in height. Their backs, caps and outside flippers are black, whilst their bellies and inside flippers are white. Pink colouring surrounds their eyes. They are very similar in appearance to the Cape Penguin of South Africa. Megellanic are a timid species and will normally scatter for the cover of their burrows when approached by humans. Those on Martillo Island have become used to tour presence and, provided you make no sudden movements, will go about their business without bother.

Gentoo Penguins

Gentoo penguins are larger, reaching up to 90cm in height. Gentoos are more flamboyant than there smaller neighbours – their red-orange beaks and peach coloured feet catch the attention. They inhabit the Antarctic Peninsula, and Martillo Island is one of the most accessible places to see them in the wild.

King Penguins

The King Penguin is the second largest species of penguin (after the Emperor) and is typically found in Antarctica. At the time I visited Martillo Island, there was a rogue King Penguin hanging out in the middle of the Gentoo colony. He held a proud figure – still and serene –  as the smaller gentoo fussed around him, like some kind of God. It wasn’t 100% apparent how or why he had ended up on Martillo Island. Our guide supposed he had become lost and, on hearing the calls of the gentoo penguins (which are also common in Antarctica), he ended up on Martillo Island.

Where are the penguins and how do I get there?

The penguins in Ushuaia live out on Martillo Island. Whilst most trips merely sail past the island, offering a glimpse of the feathered residents, the owners of the island do allow small groups the privilege of walking amongst the penguins. The owners permit groups of up to 20 people to set foot on the island for one hour at a time. Check out the Piratour website for more information.

Martillo Island lies approximately 90km east of Ushuaia. You can get there by road, along National Route 3, or by boat, along the Beagle Channel. There are two tour options. The first involves taking a coach to Harberton Farm, which takes around 1.5 hours each way. Once at the farm, a small boat takes the group over the the island. The second option, and the one that I would recommend, is to book onto the tour which includes the Beagle Channel navigation. Whilst one leg of the journey will still be by coach, the other will be on the water, navigating the Beagle Channel.

What will I see on the Beagle Channel navigation?

The Beagle Channel sits to the South of the Andes Mountain range and the mountain backdrop across the water is rather nice. Along the way there are colonies of sea lions and sea birds to admire. The navigation also offers a cracking view of the lighthouse at the end of the world.

Penguins in Ushuaia - Sealions sleepy
Penguins in Ushuaia - Sealions 2
Penguins in Ushuaia - Lighthouse

Can I touch the penguins?

Hell no. They are wild animals, stupid. In the wise words of MC Hammer, you can’t touch this (who knew that he was rapping about penguins). Remember, you are there to observe, not to interact. In this regard, the tour is a well managed affair and the safety of the penguins is always at the forefront. Walkways have been carefully created to ensure there is no accidental stepping onto the magellanic burrows. Once a year researchers camp on the island and carry out surveys, recording the penguin numbers and their health. The result of these findings determines the number of permitted visitors to the island each day.

When is the best time to see penguins in Ushuaia?

Penguins begin to arrive in Patagonia in September and stay until March. The population of penguins reaches its zenith between October and February. Visit the penguins of Ushuaia in December or January and you’ll be able to see the chicks. If you decide to visit during peak season (November to February), I would recommend booking the trip at least a week in advance, given the restricted visitor numbers. I visited the penguins on Martillo Island in late October, slightly before peak season in Patagonia. The numbers were plentiful and I was also able to look onto the tour the morning before. 

Penguins in Ushuaia - Magellanic Reflections

How much does it cost to see the penguins?

Okay, walking with the penguins in Ushuaia isn’t the cheapest excursion – it will set you back the best part of £120. There are cheaper tours available, but remember that they won’t allow you to actually walk amongst the penguins. 

Is it worth it?

“That sounds expensive Chris, is it worth it?” I get where you’re coming from, £120 isn’t cheap, especially when Patagonia is a rather expensive place to get to as it is. However, the chance to walk amongst and watch wild animals in their habitat is too good to pass up. My trip to Patagonia contained a stonking number of highlights; it is an incredible place to visit. But getting the chance to see penguins in Ushuaia was cherry on top of the rich cake of Patagonian experiences. So much so that it made it into my top 10 travel experiences. If you are an animal lover, it will be an unforgettable experience. 

Penguins in Ushuaia - Gentoos

Bonus Penguin Gallery

Because they are so cute and quirky, and I have a bazillion photographs from that hour, here’s a bonus penguin gallery for you.

Have you managed to see penguins in the wild? If so, how did you find it?

By CHRIS BURCHILL

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