Cruising the Strait of Magellan

Near the end of the South American continent in wind-swept Otway Sound, the charming colony of Magellanic penguins are a delight to behold.

Surrounded by walls of tall, craggy rocks and snow-capped peaks, our cruise ship slowly made her way along Chile’s Pacific coast through the majestic fjords of southern Patagonia and into the historic Strait of Magellan.

We were now sailing in the path of Ferdinand Magellan, the great Portuguese captain who discovered this narrow and wind-swept route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on behalf of Spain in 1520. The 350-mile long Strait of Magellan was an important discovery because it provided ships with a safe inland passage protected from the frequent storms around the waters near Cape Horn some 200 miles to the south.  And until the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914, the Strait and its port city of Punta Arenas bustled with commercial activity.

The Strait of Magellan is far less busy today, but it still provides safe passage for ships too big to fit through the Canal, and to a handful of cruise ships that bring tourists to Punta Arenas to see the amazing diversity of Patagonian wildlife, including the charming Magellanic penguins.

Nesting penguin at Otway Sound

There are two colonies of penguins near Punta Arenas at Otway Bay and Isla Magdalena, and both allow visitors to get surprisingly close to the birds and their nests. There’s also plenty of wildlife on the windswept pampas outside of the city; we saw condors (the second largest bird in the world at 15 kilos and a wing-span of 3.2 metres), grey foxes, falcons, geese and an ostrich-like bird called a “Nandu.”

We took the ship’s excursion to the Pecket Harbour Reserve in Otway Sound, where there’s a colony of some 10,000 Magellanic penguins who arrive from the southern coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands every September. The penguins prepare their nests in small burrows, mate, lay their eggs, and then brood the eggs until the chicks are born from mid-November to mid-December. After the chicks have moulted their baby feathers and learned to swim, the penguins begin returning in late March to their winter feeding grounds on the coast of Brazil and the south Atlantic islands.

Penguins live 25-30 years, and always come back to the place they were born for the mating season, and always with the same mate. Penguins usually lay one or two eggs, and males and females take turns sitting on the nest and then feeding the young with regurgitated fish.  Adult male Magellanic penguins weigh between 4.7 to 5.2 kilograms, and stand about two feet tall.

A squawking Magellanic penguin

The reserve has a roped-off boardwalk that leads around the colony to the beach, where there’s a viewing porch to watch the penguins slide into Otway Sound in search of food for their off-spring. There are also stopping points along the path where visitors can watch penguins waddle back and forth across the grass to their burrows just a few feet away.  While timid if people get too close, these beguiling penguins are not shy about poking their heads out of burrows, standing straight up, stretching their wings, and squawking a few arias just to let you know who’s in charge.  These amusing creatures really are as comical and cute in real life as they are in the Disney movies!

After spending an hour at the reserve, we returned to Punta Arenas where we did a quick tour of the city. Located on the gusty north shore of the Strait of Magellan and settled in 1843, Punta Arenas is the capital of Chile’s Magellanic and Antarctic Region XII. It’s also the southern-most city in the world of its size (150,000 people) where the winds sometimes get so strong that officials have to put ropes in the large Plaza de Armas for people to hold as they walk through the square. In fact, the weather is so inhospitable that two previous attempts by the Spanish to create settlements here failed miserably.

Gail digs in at Puerto Viejo

There are several points of interest in and around the Plaza de Armas, including a bronze statue of Ferdinand Magellan with a Fueguian native Indian sitting at the base with a leg dangling over the side. Tradition holds that sailors who kiss the big toe of the native will have a successful crossing of the strait, although almost every visitor now touches the foot for good luck. Just up Avenida 21 de Mayo there’s also the newly renovated Teatro Municipal, which is modeled after the beautiful Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.

By this time we were getting hungry, so popped into a marvelous restaurant called Puerto Viejo on O’Higgins street right across from the local headquarters of the Armada de Chile near the waterfront. The restaurant serves marvelous local seafood and barbecued meats cooked on a parrilla (open fire grill), and has a wonderful selection of Chilean wines. We ordered the grilled meat plate, and had a delicious assortment of pork, beef, chicken and three types of local sausage accompanied by creamed spinach and chunky fries, all washed down with a delightful bottle of Montes Reserva red wine.

After all that food, we must have looked like penguins as we waddled back to the ship!

Feature image – Magellanic penguins at Otway Sound

3 replies »

  1. Before reading your article David, I thought you had mistaken from whence ‘Sid the Kid’ and the rest of the Stanley Cup champs hailed. Then I discovered that you were referring to the other kind of penguin. A delightful tale indeed. Cheers! Jim


  2. Well, since there is a mega-cruise ship with a skating rink on board (yes, really), I can understand your confusion. But as far as I know, they had not yet added an NHL team!


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