Tierra del Fuego – the land of fire and penguins

As COVID took over the globe and the main cities in Patagonia started to shut down flights, I had to return home to the UK before completing my trip. I’m now sat in a cabin in the Scottish Highlands putting together the rest of my blogs. My last post was about our misadventures looking for puma on the Huemul Circuit, from there I headed south to Tierra del Fuego – better known as the end of the world…

the SOuthern Most city in the world

My first thoughts are like those of many places situated on the far extremes of human civilisation. Leaving the airport, it was mid-summer but a thick blanket of cloud lay over the city, sealed like a crumpled pie lid on three sides by mountains, then by the Beagle Channel on the fourth.

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View from Ushuaia

Ushuaia, the gateway to Tierra del Fuego, can be a difficult place. In winter the sun is hidden entirely for weeks. While in summer the night is oppressively short, to the extent it can knock your natural rhythm out of kilter. But it’s also a place with dramatic and rugged scenery, and an exciting back-story of adventure.

Named after the famous HMS Beagle, the Beagle Channel was the southernmost point to which the vessel dared venture. Carrying Charles Darwin himself as they navigated the tip of South America. This was the first place that Darwin saw a glacier, remarking “it is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow”.

On a day with blue skies, looking out across the channel, you can see mountainous islands in the distance. Somewhere beyond those is the distant land of Antarctica. Which makes it difficult not to feel like stepping onto a boat to sail into the unknown. And in those waters, lies one of the species which I most want to see from my Wild 10 list – humpback whales.

On the water
looking for penguins in tierra del fuego wildside world wild web

Rocks covered with layers of bird guano!

Luckily for those of us looking out to sea, the best way to see wildlife in Ushuaia is by boat. It’s easy to get a ticket at the many kiosks beside the jetty in the centre of town. Trips tend to cost between $60 up to over $250. Depending on duration, number of guests, services provided, and whether you’re permitted to walk onto the destination island.

The first stop for my boat was a huge cormorant colony. Magellanic cormorants are present in their thousands on various islands in the Beagle Channel. Our boat pulled up to a colony conveniently en-route to the main attractions of the day. One of the most fascinating, and slightly yucky, things about these islands (which also host hundreds of other sea birds) is the colour of the rocks… I will let the photo speak for itself.

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Baby aliens

Next stop was a place known as ‘Isla de los Lobos’, which translates as ‘Island of Wolves’… Here we were treated to incredible close-up experiences with sea lions. Hundreds of them lay sprawled across the rocks – grunting, barking, and yelping as they went about their daily lives.

Without exaggeration, the pups are THE CUTEST things in the world. Somehow, they manage to combine this extreme cuteness with looking like strange alien babies.

Land of fire (but mostly penguins)

After five more minutes of gawking, the boat’s engines roared back to life and we were off to penguin island. On our way, those of us committed enough to stand on deck (yes, that option was both cold and wet) were treated to a sighting of an albatross, the humungous lumbering giant of the ocean skies. But sadly no whales.

penguins in tierra del fuego, wildside, world wild web

Baby penguin growing a new set of feathers

Arriving at Ilsa Martillo it quickly became clear there was no risk of not seeing penguins. The island’s beaches and hills were packed with the little tuxedoed waddlers, looking stereotypically adorable. We set anchor next to the island for around twenty minutes and saw Magellanic and gentoo penguins in their hundreds, as well as a single solitary king penguin, standing guard atop an egg.

We were lucky to see the king penguin as the boat ecologist told us this year she had only seen a single pair. From my own reading, it seems their range was previously pushed back by human interference in Tierra del Fuego and places such as the Falkland Islands. Now, however, it’s on the up, with its conservation status being classed as ‘least concern’ as populations bounce back.

Back in Ushuaia, I was shown videos from people on a similar trip who had encountered whales. I couldn’t ID the species but they looked like humpback or southern right whales. I couldn’t have spent more time staring out across the choppy waters the previous day. But I was still disappointed (and somehow also excited) that we had come so close to seeing them!

Tierra del Fuego National Park

Back on land, I took a few days to explore Tierra del Fuego National Park. Over the years several species have been introduced to the park by European or North American visitors. Nowadays they have colonised and are thriving. This means you can see beavers, grey foxes, muskrats, and European rabbits, where a few hundred years ago such species would have been unknown to these lands.

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Tierra del Fuego National Park

These animals have had significant impacts on the local wildlife. This often occurs when a species is introduced into an ecosystem where it didn’t originally evolve – and where it has no natural predators.

In the case of the beaver, the impacts are particularly stark. With large areas of forest felled or flooded to build dams and lodges, displacing other species which would usually rely on them. The impact is so great that some scientists suggest this is the largest alteration to Tierra del Fuego’s forests in over 10,000 years!

Among the native species you could spot, there are the strikingly elegant black-necked swans, Magellanic woodpeckers, huemul deer, and many types of aquatic birds. This place is, as you may have guessed, a birder’s paradise. The birds here are beautiful and striking, enough that even I (not a birder!) found them very cool.

In search of whales
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Magellanic woodpecker

I spent a day hiking through the park with travellers I had met at my hostel. While we walked, we exchanged travel stories, ideas, and information, until something piqued my interest.

Apparently, there is a ferry which crosses the southernmost waters of the South American continent. Travelling from Puerto Williams (a village even further south than Ushuaia) all the way across to Punta Arenas. It’s said to encounter glaciers, rough and wild waters, and a multitude of whales along the way.

I got home that night and immediately started asking around. I needed to know if anyone staying in our hostel knew anything more…

Adam

TOP TIPS FOR WILDLIFE IN Tierra del Fuego

We’ll post a full page on WildSide soon. For now here are my top tips for wildlife watching in Tierra del Fuego:

  • Humpback whale: Difficult – humpbacks are seldom seen from the shores of Tierra del Fuego, and it can be difficult to get yourself seabound to the places where they sometimes can be seen.
  • Southern right whale: Difficult – as with humpbacks, it is hard to put yourself into position to view these majestic beasts, but a lucky sighting is possible!
  • Condor: Easy – as in other areas of Patagonia, with a little persistence and time in nature, your chances of seeing these guys are good.
  • Magellanic penguin: Easy – the most common penguins in Tierra del Fuego, if you book onto a tour from Ushuaia to Isla Martillo you will see plenty of these little guys.
  • Gentoo penguin: Moderate – slightly less common than Magellanic Penguins, but equally cute. You can easily catch these guys waddling, diving, and yaking (yes, penguins yak), all day long.
  • King penguin: Difficult – tours from Ushuaia don’t guarantee sightings, when I visited there was a single pair on the island.
  • Sea lion: Easy – sign up to the right boat trip and you’ll quickly be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of a hundred squabbling sea lions.
  • Rhea: Easy – the Rhea, a kind of Patagonian emu, can be seen along the roads around Tierra del Fuego.
  • Magellanic woodpecker: Moderate – a large woodpecker with a distinctive bright red head. I guess these guys have been hitting the wood a little too hard…
  • Black-browed albatross: Easy – with a wingspan up to 2.4 metres, if there’s one around you aren’t going to miss it!

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