You can access Martillo island from the port of Harbourton which lies along the Beagle Channel, two-hours by bus from Argentina’s southernmost city, Ushuaia. Martillo is home to some 3000 permanent residents whose lineage has captivated the interests of local scientists for over a decade. The island also caters to seasonal visitors who bask in island’s warmth during the brief summer months.
Martillo island is penguin territory.
They say humans find animal behaviour endearing because they remind us all too fondly of ourselves. The residents of Martillo appear to be no exception to the rule.
On a blustery summer’s day, I paid a visit to the island with a local biologist Carla who commended me on my apparent coolness and blasé attitude when faced with the presence of 3000 Magellanic penguins. In my mind however, I was doing frantic summersaults and excitably cooing at the waddling figures that tripped over the beach’s rocky composition.
I was told to keep my distance which allowed me to take in the breadth of what appeared to be seemingly standard penguin behaviour. In no time, these behaviours would be paralleled the intricacies of daily human life. In my mind, Magellanic penguins were complex little people.
To the left of me, a disheveled juvenile lay belly first on the gravel having endured the highs and lows of adolescence. By the shore a cluster of teenage delinquents squawked haphazardly, clumsily barging their torsos against one another as a sign of machismo. On high ground, the last nesting chick watched the world beyond the burrow in admiration and in awe, while dad tired away at sea to provide for tonight’s family meal. An hour or so later, a sea lion bobbed through the tumultuous waves sending a flurry of young ones into panic mode. They edged away in unison like submissive underlings who dodged the possibility of a confrontation with the high school bully.
“An hour’s up!”. And like that it was time to go.
As I hoisted myself onto the boat’s edge, a curious face shuffled towards my feet as though to bid me farewell. I smiled at the thought, resonating with the inquisitive creature that peered up at me.
After three weeks in South America my Spanish was still poor, but after an hour on Martillo I felt well-versed in Penguin – or so I thought.
Splash! The penguin swiftly moved on, charging head first into the sea.
“They’re hungry” Carla laughed, a reminder that my local connection was perhaps only a figment of my imagination.