By Alex Mehlin
In 1947 a half a million Magellanic Penguins unexpectedly waddled out of the Atlantic Ocean and onto the vast Patagonia steppe at Punta Tombo. They have been coming back ever since.
From September to April these flightless birds make their nests amongst the dome shaped bushes, the occasional guanacos, countless cui, harmless foxes and now up to 300 people at a time, seven days a week.
A small chain restricting access to a board walk and ticket window functioned as a welcoming for visitors. At the gate we were given the stringent rules of the park; One, Give the penguins the right of way. Two, stay a meter and a half from the penguins. Three, do not eat food or smoke in the park. Four, do not deviate away from the path.
With the rules freshly implemented into our minds we walked down the board walk. The sound of honking penguins filled the misty air. It took no time for us to see the sleek black and white creatures. They waddled about picking up sticks to bring to their spouses. Others lined up and marched piously towards the sea. The fledging young huddled together like a bunch of displaced teenagers, no home to speak of and no spouse to call their own, they loitered about.
The Penguins seemed to hold little regard for the intruding humans. They boldly took over the path going about their daily business with a sense of determination and authority, except for one.
We stood at the edge of the white rock barrier watching two full grown male penguins peck at each other’s face until the less dominate of the two decided he has had enough and waddles way ashamed and defeated.
The sound of honking was suddenly interrupted by Spanish screeching.
“Ahh, My hand bag, my hand bag,” a middle aged women yelled. We quickly turned our attention to an Argentinean man taunting an aggressive youth with his wives hand bag. The penguin with his chest puffed out pecked at the Black Hand bag, angrily he move closer to the bag, grabbing it with his beak and shaking his little head.
The Argentine man pull the bag away and let it sit just out of reach from the penguin, we looked on horrified as the penguin advanced on the bag a second time.
This time the man was having nothing of the penguin’s advances, in one swift swing he pulled the bag and the penguin off the ground and swung them in a circle. Undaunted the penguin held tight. Once safely back on the ground the penguin released his death grip on the bag.
His wife looked on horrified as three penguins sensing the urgency of the moment marched towards the scene. Alarmed she warmed her husband of the pressing danger. “The others are coming, the others are coming,” she cried.
The man seemed to realise the pure ridiculousness of the situation. He pulled the hand bag out of reach and quickly walked away.
Not done yet, the angry penguin turned his attention to us. Still appalled by the man’s actions I watched as the once docile creature turn on me. He waddled at me with surprising speed. I began to back away fast enough to keep him from pecking my knees to shreds while still remaining calm. My escape seemed to work.
Exhausted and seemingly satisfied with defending his turf, the penguin turned and walked over to a crowd of his observing peers. We moved on still flabbergasted by the childish antics of the grown man.
We spent the rest of the morning watching penguins hop into the sea and waddle about. More and more people walked the trail. Overwhelmed, hungry and tired of smelling bird shit, we left the reserve.
On the way back to our bus I wondered when the penguins would have enough of the day to day torment and decide to pick a new plot of land to lay claim.