Magdalena Island Penguins

Near the southern tip of Chile is Magdalena Island, the breeding home to over 120,000 Magellanic penguins. Walking among this waddling colony is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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1 Penguin Colony at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Imagine seeing thousands of penguins on a small island that is only about 210 acres! From Punta Arenas, Chile, you take a boat about 20 miles through the Straits of Magellan before arriving at Magdalena Island. It is uninhabited … unless you are counting the 120,000 Magellanic penguins. You can walk among them as they waddle along, poke out of burrows, care for their chicks and gather in social circles. What an amazing neighborhood!

Magdalena Island, Magallanes y la Antártica, Chilena Region, Chile
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Welcoming Committee at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Visiting Magdalena Island is truly a unique experience. Walking tours of the island are offered from mid-October through mid-April. As your boat pulls up to shore, an envoy of Magellanic penguins rushes towards shore to greet you. You walk along a roped off trail yet penguins are all around you. You are told they always have the right away so you must stop and let them pass by. The birds seem to know the rules and act surprised if you get in their way.

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Magellanic Penguin Description at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

This adorable bird waddling on an island in southern Chile is a Magellanic penguin. In adulthood, they average 24 to 30 inches tall and weigh six to 14 pounds. They have a black back and a white abdomen with two stripes across their throat and chest. During the breeding season a splash of pink bare skin appears above the bill and surrounding the eyes. Below their surface feathers is a heavy layer of down. This keeps these powerful swimmers warm and dry while diving down 150 feet or more in the cold water of the Atlantic Ocean.

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2 Three Penguins Family Portrait at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

If you like penguins, you will love seeing over 63,000 breeding pairs on Magdalena Island in southern Chile. In this family portrait, the two birds with grey-blue coloring are chicks. An average of 1.4 chicks per nest survives each year. The adults can live up to 20-25 years and mate for life.

Magdalena Island, Magallanes y la Antártica, Chilena Region, Chile
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Penguin Emerging from Burrow at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

All of the penguins on Magdalena Island breed and live in shallow holes dug into the hard sandy surface. A male returns to the same burrow every year. When he dies, a younger male will claim the spot if it is located closer to the shore. Other South American penguins will nest in tall grass, under bushes or on the surface if digging is not practical.

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Adult Penguin Guarding Chicks at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Magellanic penguins typically mate for life and are excellent parents. After a female reaches maturity at four years, she will lay two eggs per breeding season in a burrow. The couple takes two-week shifts guarding the clutch during the 39 to 42 day incubation period while the other forages for food. This pattern continues for thirty days after the chicks are born. When they are 40 to 70 days old, the fledglings head towards the open sea in mass where they are joined by other juveniles and some adults for the northward migration.

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Foraging For Food at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Every day, one of the parents guards the chicks in the burrow while the other takes the plunge in search of food. Their diet is primarily small fish, squid and crustaceans. An average fishing trip takes 16 to 18 hours. This sounds like a long time but the penguins’ feeding success has been greatly assisted since the Chilean government banned commercial fishing in 1982 within a 19 mile radius around Magdalena Island.

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Flock of Penguins at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Magellanic penguins prefer to do almost everything in large flocks. They breed and nest as a colony, they hunt in numbers and they travel on their migratory routes as a group. And when they are not guarding their burrows, they gather together to socialize.

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3 Lighthouse at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Lighthouses are typically a major draw for tourists. However, the Faro Isla Magdalena is a distance second attraction compared to the thousands of Magellanic penguins surrounding it. This white, cylindrical beacon with a bold red stripe and roof became operational in 1902. It was manned by a keeper who lived in the white house until the light became automated during the 1950’s. After a renovation in 1995, the building serves as an office for staff who manage the penguin reserve.

Magdalena Island, Magallanes y la Antártica, Chilena Region, Chile
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Los Pinguinos Natural Monument on Magdalena Island, Chile

The colony of Magellanic penguins is a wildlife treasure of southern Chile. So in 1966 it was designated as the Los Pinguinos Natural Monument. The Corporación Nacional Forestal carefully manages the island to protect the penguins and their habitat in balance with welcoming tourists from October through March.

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Magellanic Penguin Namesake at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

The Magellanic Penguin is named after Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who captained a fleet of Spanish ships on the first circumnavigation of the world. During his early 16th century voyage from Europe, across the Atlantic and through the tip of South America, his log recorded sighting the penguins on this island which is also named after him.

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Two Chicks In Burrow at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Young penguin chicks are balls of sparse gray down when they are hatched. They remain in the burrow or nest while guarded and warmed by a parent. As they become older, the chicks develop a thicker plumage, making them less dependent on brooding. Then they begin to shed their mesoptile stage like these chicks before they are ready to swim. A pair of Magellanic penguins typically brood two chicks per season. On average, 1.0 to 1.6 survives until adulthood. This seems low but is significantly higher than the .5 chick survival in the Falkland Islands.

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Each Penguin Unique at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

When you see thousands of penguins in a very condensed space, they all start looking alike. But they each have a unique call which is immediately recognized by their partner and chicks. According to researchers, they also have unique personalities and react with each other and humans in different ways.

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Penguin Annual Stages at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

Each September, male Magellanic penguins return to Magdalena Island to reclaim the burrow they used the year before. After they spend time repairing the nest, their female mates travel to the island to begin the breeding season. This extends through late February or early March when the mature chicks swim away. Then the adults molt for two to four weeks. They do not enter the water during this period so they must fast. When their plumage has regrown in April, they begin their northerly migration.

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Penguin Carrying Stick at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

This busy penguin seemed unique because he was hurriedly carrying a twig back to his burrow. It was an odd find because there is no vegetation on Magdalena Island, just dirt and sand. Some seaweed washes up along the rocks but other birds seemed uninterested. Even when penguins return from their foraging trips, you do not seem them carrying their catch. They feed their chicks through regurgitation.

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Socializing Penguins at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

It is fun watching the penguins socialize at Magdalena Island. Small groups gather together and seem to be communicating and enjoying each other as friends and neighbors. Meanwhile, pairs of penguins preen each other as part of their bonding process while others focus on individual preening. This process spreads a wax produced by the uropygial gland near their tail onto their feathers to help keep them waterproof. Meanwhile, other birds cast their faces towards the sky and close their eyes while basking in the sun.

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Penguins Designed for Swimming at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

The Magellanic penguin waddles when they walk like an animated cartoon so they seem awkward on land. However, they are perfectly designed for water. Unlike flying birds, a penguin’s bones are thick. This reduces buoyance and allows them to dive up to 250 below the surface. Their feathers cover a thick deposit of fat and are waterproof. This plumage is held tightly against their body by tiny muscles which further conserve heat. Finally, their strong rigid flippers give them incredible mobility while swimming. They can reach bursts of speed over eight miles per hour.

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Penguin Population and Range at Penguin Reserve on Magdalena Island, Chile

There are approximately 2.6 million Spheniscus Magellanicus penguins. During their breeding season, approximately 200,000 of the birds live on Magdalena Island. However, the range for these migratory birds extends as far north as Peru and Brazil plus the Atlantic coast of Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and along both coasts of southern Chile.

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Colony of Sea Lions on Marta Island, Chile

The National Monument Los Pinguinos is famous for the thousands of Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island. But this Chilean reserve consists of two islands. The second is Isla Marta where a colony of 1,000 South American sea lions lives all year. Called the lobo marino by local Chileans, the male Patagonian sea lion can grow up to nine feet and weigh over 700 pounds. As your boat passes by, you might also see cormorants and seagulls on the cliffs plus dolphins and sea elephants swimming in the water.

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