The Rock Hopper Penguins have arrived

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
Trip End Nov 10, 2007

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Where I stayed
Chaffer Hotel

Flag of Argentina  ,
Friday, October 26, 2007

It takes a full day of travelling by bus from Trelew to Puerto Deseado. We briefly stop in the dusty god-forsaken town of Coleta Oliva and feel happy to make a reasonably rapid connection to our destination. The landscape from the bus window doesnt seem to change much. Apart from the coastline, there is the same flat expanse of Patagonian dry land bearing few shrubs.  

John tells me that there is much sealife around Puerto Deseado, and as it takes a lot of patience to get here, we hope that the boat tours will be more in touch with nature. The town has a busy fishing port and still remains largely undiscovered to the world of tourism that we have experienced in our last stops.

Arriving around midnight, we try to stay in one of the two recommendations in the Footprints guide. We become slightly concerned when we discover there is an election campaign commencing with many politicians staying in town. We manage to find the last available room in the luxurious Hotel Chaffer. Rooms here cost 160Ps per night, over double the price of the last place we stayed at. Still, its very clean and the 3 week old merino lamb that wanders around the reception trying to graze on the carpet makes the place somewhere a little different.

At breakfast the next morning, we meet Phill, a Welsh traveller. He tells us that there is a boat tour available and the weather conditions are perfect. We rush down the street to the Darwin Expeditions office, fork out a hefty 230 Pesos each (38 GBP). Its not totally clear what we are going to be doing but as we have spent a whole day to get here and this is the only tour running there really isnt much choice. As the day unfolds we realise that it was one of the best experiences of the trip.

We find ourselves sitting on a inflatable dingy along with around 15 Argentinian journalists. The journalists are all travel writers and hurridly scribble notes as we speed along the bay. Within the first 5 minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a pod of Commerson´s Dolphins. These dolphins are common along the east coast but it is the first time I have seen them. They look a little like mini Killer Whales with a blowhole and black and white shiny bodies, but they are only around 1 meter in length and of course, they are not dangerous. The dolphins love playing with the us, jumping up out of the water and swimming alongside us blowing water into our faces. Its a really special moment. 

As we pass further out of the port, the dolphins leave us. We pass some shipwreck boats and a small island full of South American terns which have white bodies, black wings and red legs.  Next we reach a smelly island which has around 1000 sealions. The huge males growl and shake their heads whilst the smaller gray females bask in the sun. As we approach a huge crowd of the sealions flop into the water, raising their necks and heads curiously at the boat.

Finally we reach Penguin Island. The island houses a disused lighthouse that it now inhabited by hundreds of nesting magellenic penguins. The scenery on the 1000 meter long island is beautiful. Orange lichen spreads over the rocks against a background of a rich and calm blue sea. Huge brown skua birds swoop across our heads looking for any unattended Magalenic Penguin eggs. The whole scene is much more peaceful than the man made structures and masses of tourists that we experienced at Punta Tombo.

The highlight of the day is seeing the rock hopper penguins. As we cross to the other side of the island its a great surprise to see them. Its been a very cold winter and there have not been any sighting this year. Along a narrow rocky inlet groups of penguins emerge from the sea. Their bodies are black and white and they have pink feet and beaks. Their most elegant feature is their red eyes and spikey yellow eyebrows. The penguins walk with a waddle and as they hop around onto the rocks its easy to see how they get their name. 

On the rocky ledges, pairs of Rock Hopper Penguins stand, gently preening oneanothers feathers. Single penguins look for their mate, occaisioally having swabbles with other penguins. Often they raise they heads and call out loudly.

The penguins are incredibly beautiful and seem to almost pose for the cameras. The journalists go mad snapping pictures with telescopic lenses. We stay for a few hours and I just enjoy sitting a few feet from the penguins and watching them against the incredible background of the island. I´m not sure whether it was the long bus journey, the not knowing where the tour was going, or the sheer beauty of the nature that makes the moment so special. 

We eat dinner with Phil, visiting the only recommended restaurant in town, aptly called the Penguin although it is more of the penguins diet than Penguins that is on the menu. We eat some fresh langoustines and fresh fish.

Next day we jump onto the Darwin Expeditions boat again. This time we have a shorter half day tour. We spend some time playing with the Commorant Dolphins in the bay again. We travel up the estuary to see nesting Red Legged Cormorants with their bright blue eyes and Rock Cormorants. We stop on another deserted island and wander around more nesting Magellenic penguins. Some penguins waddle around the beach and plonk themselves into the sea for a swim. They bob up and down like ducks and dive for meters under the water,    

Back on the mainland we wander around the town for an afternoon. The people are not so friendly as other places we have visited, but this is probably the most undeveloped tourist town we have been to. We take a short visit to the maritime museum where we see possessions of a British ship that sank 50 meters from the shore in 1770. In the evening we hop back on a bus to take us down to the very-southerly town of Rio Gallegos.

The poor road connections do make Puerto Deseado an off the beaten place to visit. The town has a  depressed feel with gangs of hooded youths loitering at the street corners with nothing to do and some locals charging extortionate rates for the tourists. The boat tours have been running for 15 years and although they monopolise the market, they still take you somewhere very special and a world away from the more touristy destinations of Peninsular Valdes.
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