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The penguin city

Punta Tombo

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Year after year, the coasts of Punta Tombo in Argentine Patagonia are colonized by massive contingents of Magellanic penguins that leave the sea in search of suitable land to nest and raise their chicks.

Punta Tombo is the largest continental penguin colony in the world. During winter, it resembles a mined terrain, but as spring arrives, around two million small and bustling individuals emerge from the sea. The pairs formed in previous years will stay together and have no trouble recognizing the old nests they built years before, which they will begin to reconstruct and prepare.

Meanwhile, the “bachelors” will have to try to attract a female that accepts them, spending many hours, and even days, displaying themselves to the young ladies who treat them with absolute contempt until finally one of them accepts. This union can last a lifetime, and once the pair is formed, they dedicate themselves to finding the right place to excavate a nest in the ground, about half a meter deep, enough to hide their eggs from the view of the numerous birds.

The task is not easy since the territory is highly occupied, and there is constant housing conflict. Some penguins will build their nests over a thousand meters away from the sea. Considering that the mates need to go into the water several times a day, long walks are common for these small birds with robust bodies and very short legs. Therefore, the best-located nests near the beach are the subject of numerous fights between the owner and the males trying to usurp them. Up to eighty nests have been counted in just one hundred square meters of territory.

By late September, the females will lay two eggs, which are white tinged with bluish-green. The pair takes turns in incubating and protecting the eggs. By the end of November, the chicks will hatch. The nests become populated with small grayish fluffy penguins that incessantly squawk for food 24 hours a day. Trips to the sea multiply, and the parents will be very busy for the next three months until the chicks can fend for themselves.

At the beginning of autumn, following an ancestral ritual, the penguins will venture into the waters and disappear into the horizon without us knowing exactly where they are heading. Punta Tombo is once again abandoned, with the silence of a ghost town, its surface riddled with a million uninhabited holes, devoid of squawks, embraced by the cold wind, with nothing to do but await a new spring.

“You cannot defend what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.”