Walking with the penguins

Trip Start Jan 09, 2007
Trip End Feb 01, 2007

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I started today with breakfast in the common area of the hostel with other travelers.  They are all a very friendly group of people. There are Swiss, English, German and Australians staying at this time.    The English guys have been traveling around South America since October taking a "gap year".  I have to say, I totally love the hostels in Argentina.  Its cheap, they are clean, and you get to meet lots of interesting people.  

Today's adventure is a boat tour of the Beagle Channel and one of the penguin colonies in the channel.  The tour leaves at 3pm, so I have a couple of hours to kill. I spent time wandering the town centre and enjoyed the modest temperatures. (it feels like Vancouver in the fall).

I wandered about town for a while and ended up in prison! Well, actually, it is an old prison from 1900's where America's hardest criminals were sent for life.   The prison itself was interesting. Very bare essentials.

An interesting thing I read was that there was no wall around the prison.  Basically if any prisoners escaped they had nowhere to go and would return to the prison as there was no food or shelter for hundreds of kilometers.

The tour set out on a small bus with about 15 people.  The bus part of the tour was interesting and it lasted about an hour.  We went through the Andes Mountains on a very narrow and winding single lane dirt road.  A couple of times we almost hit animals.  It was a bit scary but I am getting used to the crazy driving here.

Along the way I learned about Canada's crime against Argentina...  Beavers. Yes, the furry little Canadian creature also lives here.  What happened was in the 1940's a Canadian moved here and brought a few beavers to start a beaver pelt production farm.  Unfortunately, some beavers got loose at one point and started mass producing (as Canadian beavers do...).  At the same time there are no predators of the beavers, so at this time there are 60,000 of them.  There are only 58,000 people that live here.  Beavers outnumber people!  Blame Canada!

These Canadian pests not welcome as all 60,000 beavers build dams that flood farmlands and kill trees.  There are large numbers of dead trees where the beavers have flooded the land and drowned the trees.  Right now, the government will pay you 50 pesos for a beaver tail.  During this part of the tour, I pretended to be American (just kidding).

On arriving at the Harberton Estancia (ranch) we hopped into a boat and set out to the penguin island, called Isla Martillo.  They beached the boat and we hopped off into a  sea of penguins.  I couldn't believe how many of them there are.   Thousands!  This is near the end of mating season, so the babies are just about ready to leave home.

The penguins only use this island for mating.  After mating season, they swim off to somewhere else.  The males arrive in October to build the nest.  The nests are underground caves that can be about a meter long and a foot wide.  Then a week later, the females arrive and they choose their mate.  They chose the mate based on the nests that the males built.  The female will go for the guy with the best nest. If the male penguin is a crappy nest builder, he doesn't get a mate.   Poor little guy!

I was incredibly surprised how friendly the penguins were. At one point I was less than 3 feet away from them.  We weren't allowed to touch them, as they are known to bite.  Also, we were only allowed to walk on designated paths as to not disturb the nests.

Here's a short movies of some penguins. 

On the way back we stopped at a rather interesting tree.  The trees here grow flat because the wind is so strong that it slowly bends them.  These trees are the symbol of Ushuaia.  

I paid a lot for this tour but it is the only tour that allows you to get off the boat and walk in the penguin colony.  Other, cheaper, tours would come up to the island on the boat and simply sit and watch from afar.  These people got the welfare tour:

I think my tour was money well spent.  It was amazing to see so many of these creatures up close. I have only seen them in zoos before and it is usually 1 or 2 from a distance. And also, I learned so much about penguins... endless hours of conversation when I get home.  Look out!

Before dinner, I found
the Irish pub in the town to have a beer and write my blog entry. The place is painted green, the stools are comfortable, there are kids running about, they are playing U2  and there is English football playing on the TV. This is as Irish as it gets.  I am just waiting for a fight to break out.  It amazes me the lengths the Irish will go to spread their culture.  Where are the Scottish pubs in South America?

For dinner tonight I am going to hit the Parrilla.  It is a restaurant that serves Argentinean barbeque.   Each restaurant has a wood fire pit that they cook entire animals at once. It is so tasty!   (vegetarians turn your head now)

Later on I was walking back to the hostel when I noticed a strange streak across the sky. It was a comet!  This is the first time that I have ever seen one and it was brilliant.  By my estimation, the tail covered about of the night sky. It was about midnight, and I could still see twilight on the horizon over the mountains and a magnificent comet streaking across the sky.  

Good night.
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