Turn right at Antarctica: A date with the last king penguins

Kenny Mah
A ferry ride is part of the half-day long journey to the king penguin colony. – Pictures by CK Lim

PUNTA ARENAS (Chile), Oct 12 — We get up well before the break of dawn. Our journey takes us across hundreds of miles, over land and sea.

What awaits us near the end of the world, just before Antarctica, are the last king penguins in the world.

These magnificent but endangered birds are protected at Parque Pingüino Rey, here on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego.

It’s the southernmost colony of king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) found on any continent; any further and they are scattered on subantarctic islands.

However you place them, it’s quite a distance to travel for a date with these beautiful creatures.

Why don’t we just see them in a zoo? It’d be easier for one, and faster. Fewer bumpy, unsealed roads and no risk of seasickness.

But it won’t be the same, not through the steel bars of cages or the glass windows of enclosures.

South American grey foxes wander near the ferry, scavenging.

There is barely any morning light when we reach the port. A ferry ride is part of the half-day long journey to the king penguin colony, taking us from the port near Punta Arenas to the ferry terminal three kilometres from the town of Porvenir.

We will cross the Straits of Magellan. The waves seem kind today. We pray they stay that way.

Soon, as dawn breaks, the ferry begins loading the vehicles. Some passengers simply board on foot, keeping to one side while the cars and buses take the middle path.

We are inside a van, joining a day tour; it’s the easiest way and there are plenty of tour groups.

A pair of South American grey foxes, semi-urban scavengers attuned to surprise feasts within garbage cans, wander near the ferry but are chased off.

Good thing too, for aren’t foxes on boats a bad omen? Perhaps not in this part of the world. Who knows what myths and superstitions reign here.

Our early morning crossing of the Straits of Magellan turns out to be a pleasant one. The sea is smooth. We spot what appears to be whales — humpback whales are common here — but there is still too little light to be certain. Any photographs we take would be grainy.

Better to just stand on deck, the ocean breeze in our faces, chilling our skin, and take it all in. Our memories take better pictures.

Dawn breaks as the ferry carries passengers from Punta Arenas to Porvenir.

Two and half hours later, our ferry reaches Porvenir. Finally, we have arrived at the island of Tierra del Fuego.

We stretch our legs one more time then get on our van once more. Now comes the part where it is a near continuous bumpy ride along a thin and long sliver of unsealed road.

We fall asleep. Everyone does, after the initial curiosity about the grassy hills and occasional guanaco we pass by; the lullaby of the van’s tyres drumming on dust and pebbles is irresistible. They say it’s the journey, not the destination. Sometimes the journey is just the journey.

Our van stops. Everyone wakes up. We have arrived at Parque Pingüino Rey. Welcome to the wilderness.

The entrance is signposted by dead trees, petrified by the salt in the winds. The ocean gets everywhere on an island. It’s never too far away; you can taste it in the air and the call of seagulls is unceasing.

We get out of the van and start walking towards the king penguin colony. The footpaths are well signposted. The grasses bend this way and that with the winds, and we tilt a little while walking too. The winds are strong.

Welcome to the wilderness: The entrance to Parque Pingüino Rey.

Officially opened in mid-2011, Parque Pingüino Rey is a private conservation initiative started by a local Magellanic family.

Concerned about the welfare of the original eight king penguins that nested in the area, they created the park to protect the only colony of king penguins in South America.

Since then, a friendly and informative park guide informs us, there have been various research projects and the population of king penguins has expanded with the first offspring born here in 2013. And so we get to see them in the wild.

King penguins are the second largest penguins in the world, dwarfed only by their cousins, the emperor penguins in the South Pole.

Standing at up to 100 centimetres tall, they are regal birds with the males only slightly larger than females.

We observe the yellow-orange plumage on the breasts of the king penguins and their vibrant orange cheeks. A touch of colour goes a long way, with their requisite coats of black and white.

The southernmost colony of king penguins in the world.

These are majestic birds and given how high some of them raise their long bills, kissed by a blush of orange, they know it too.

After spending some time looking at them, we discern the juveniles too. The younger birds are distinguishable thanks to their brown plumage, heavy and dark in contrast with the brighter hues of the adult king penguins. They feed, they fight, they preen and play, almost.

They are a family, and like most royal families, they are always on display. We feel like the paparazzi almost, voyeuristically watching their every move.

Thankfully, our guide reminds us that our visit contribute to their conservation efforts. These days, as part of the Project of Biodiversity and Archaeological Vestiges Conservation in Bahía Inútil, our entrance fees help fund improvement of the footpaths and viewpoints, and even the integration of renewable energy sources for the park.

Every bit counts, in saving these birds in their natural habitat. In the wild. Seeing them where they ought to be, we realise why it’s not the same as seeing them at the zoo.

No steel bars and no glass windows. No barriers. As it ought to be. Free as a bird, if you’d pardon the pun.

Without help, without conservation efforts, however, zoos might be the only places we’d see king penguins. Forget about being free, these might very well be the last king penguins if nothing is done.

Juveniles, distinguishable thanks to their brown plumage, amongst the adult king penguins.

Certainly our hours and miles travelling here have been worth it. So far south, our directions might as well have been “Turn right at Antarctica.”

Sometimes a journey is just a journey. Sometimes the destination is the story.

Parque Pingüino Rey

Y-85, Porvenir, Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, Chile

Open daily (except Mon closed) 11am-6pm

Entrance fee: CLP12,000 (RM69) per person