We were about halfway into our Viking South America cruise when we “rounded Cape Horn” and entered the South Atlantic Ocean. Our itinerary during this part of the cruise was for a visit to Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, then a couple of days sailing to Puerto Madryn in the Patagonia region of Argentina. We were looking forward to these two port calls because we booked excursions that would take us “up close and personal” with penguins. In the Falklands stop, we expected to visit nesting sites of the large King Penguins and at Puerto Madryn, we would drive out to the Punta Tombo Nature Reserve to the largest Magellanic Penguin rookery in the world.
Pelagic birds Following Our Ship
On the afternoon of February 2, 2020, the Viking Jupiter was sailing towards the Falkland Islands (Isla Malvinas), where we expected to arrive early the next morning. It was late afternoon, with a warm glow of the low sun filtered by milky clouds, as the ship cut through the choppy seas at 18 knots. We were treated to an aerial show of majestic seabirds soaring and zooming effortlessly alongside the ship. Quite a few Giant Petrels and an occasional Albatross followed along with the ship and from the open deck of the Aquavit Terrace at the stern, I had a great spot for photographing these amazing creatures.
Photographing moving objects from the deck of a rolling ship is a bit of a challenge. In addition to the ship’s movement and the wind buffeting me and the camera, these birds would move fast. They would dive down close to the water, wingtips just touching the wavetops, then abruptly soar vertically, then loop around and briefly glide along with the wind. I had to put the camera on rapid burst mode, auto focus, frame the shots as best I could and hope for the best.
Close to Sunset
That evening during the daily briefing, we were told that the wind conditions at Port Stanley were unfavorable for tender boat operations and there was a possibility the shore excursions would be cancelled. This was a disappointment to passengers, but safety is the main priority for the Captain. We would wait until the morning on our arrival for a final decision.
In the early morning when we anchored, the weather and winds seemed to be fine and they announced for the first shore excursion group. We were in a later group, and we were feeling good that the day may go off as planned. The first group got ashore and they were on vehicles ready for their tours when the weather deteriorated, and the forecast was not good. The Captain recalled those already ashore and cancelled the remaining shore excursions. A big disappointment, but the cancellations made total sense. The Captain didn’t want to risk having hundreds of passengers stranded ashore. Apparently, this has happened a few times in the past with other cruises. This puts a huge strain on the local authorities who must put up the stranded passengers in a school gymnasium or other shelters and it may be a day or more before they can safely return to the ship.
So we didn’t get to see the King Penguins of the Falklands, except for a distance glimpse as we sailed past the dunes.
After sailing a couple of days through some heavy seas and hurricane force gales, we arrived in Puerto Madryn on February 5th, 2020, where we did get to walk among penguins at the Punta Tombo Nature Reserve. This reserve is in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia. The landscape is desert-like, and the reserve has an excellent interpretation center that includes exhibits and displays describing the penguin’s habitat, lifecycles, as well as information about local ecology. The reserve has walking trails with many sections of raised wooden boardwalks that allow the penguins to pass under the walkways. There are surface trails as well and you must stop and stand clear if a penguin is trying to cross.
The reserve is the site of the largest Magellanic Penguin rookery in the world. The Magellanic penguin is a mid-sized penguin species, typically growing to about 24-30 inches tall (60-76cm). Every September 1 million penguins arrive at Punta Tompo to breed. They lay their eggs under bushes or in burrows and raise the chicks until February or March when the penguins leave for feeding grounds in the far South Atlantic and Antarctic area. When we visited, most chicks were mature, some still had their fluffy, downy feathers.
Other wildlife in the area includes the Guanaco, a close relative of the Llama. We spotted a few in the bush.
Up Close and Personal
Walking with a Penguin
We spent a good part of the day at the reserve, finally returning to the ship late afternoon to a line-up of our crew welcoming us back and offering sparkling wine. Nice way to end a long day!