Magdalena Island, also known as Isla Magdalena, is an island with a 1.57 km2 protected area called “Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos”. It is located off the coast of Chile in the Strait of Magellan, about 35 kilometres northwest of Punta Arenas, and forms Chille’s most important magellanic penguin colony. Also, it is the second-largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America.
It hosts more than 120,000 Magellanic penguins, who live on the 85 hectares of this protected island, which was declared a national park in 1966 and a natural monument in 1982. The birds are named after Ferdinand Magellan, who first observed them in the early 16th century.
The island can only be reached by sea from Punta Arenas and is also home to cormorants, sea lions, elephant seals, and other species. Magdalena Island National Park also includes about 250,000 hectares of forest, as well as rivers, lagoons, and Mentolat Volcano.
The main attractions of Isla Magdalena
Magdalena Island is known for its stunning natural beauty and abundant wildlife and is an essential habitat for the penguins that return there every year between October and March to breed and raise their young. In winter, the penguins migrate northward to Uruguay and south-eastern Brazil, where temperatures are warmer.
The world’s total population is considered a rare species and is estimated at 1.3 million breeding pairs. The birds’ population is threatened by, among other things, oil pollution of seawater, but also hunting and overfishing.
These penguins are one of the island’s main attractions and draw visitors from all over the world. To reach them, you have to take a ferry and drive for about two hours through the Strait of Magellan. During the trip, you can also see sea lions, Commerson’s dolphins, southern dolphins, Antarctic giant petrels, and black-browed albatrosses.
A small, non-sanctuary area in the south of the island is Puerto Gaviota, five hectares in size, with a hundred houses and a long horseshoe-shaped boardwalk.
While the penguin colony is the main attraction of the island, the iconic lighthouse that also stands on Isla Magdalena forms part of a tour of the island. Built in 1902, it currently houses the CONAF park center which manages the area and provides information about the penguins and the area in general.
The Magellanic Penguins: An endangered species
The Magellan Penguin is a migratory bird and travels long distances every year between their breeding grounds in Chile, Argentina, and the Falkland islands and their feeding grounds in the Atlantic Ocean.
Magellanic penguins are about 61–76 cm tall, weigh between 2.7 and 6.5 kg and can live up to 25 years in the wild, but as much as 30 years in captivity. Captain Eo, a male Magellanic penguin at the San Francisco Zoo, died in 2022 at the age of 40!
To control the penguin population on the island, a long-term monitoring program was established on Isla Magdalena in 1998. It sought to conduct regular and accurate measurements of the population size of the rookery and to observe the impact of tourism upon the island, particularly as visitor numbers have begun to reach thousands annually.
Luckily, the research has indicated that the population of Magellanic penguins is growing, despite the increase of visitors onto the island. Scientists have noted that the penguins have even established smaller rookeries on other islands, such as nearby Contramaestre, demonstrating that the colony is healthy and leaving authorities optimistic about the impact of future conservation efforts.
The best time and way to visit the Magellanic penguins on Isla Magdalena
As one of Patagonia’s more accessible Magellanic penguin rookeries, Isla Magdalena makes a perfect location for a day-trip. If you’re hoping to visit, here are some useful planning tips.
The island is only accessible by small boat or Zodiac excursion from larger cruise ships from October to April and the cost of landing upon the island for an adult tourist is $ 9.000 CLP.
Although there are several other spots where you can observe penguins in Argentina and the Galapagos Islands for example, you rarely have the opportunity to get so close to these fascinating animals, so it’s definitely worth a trip!
As Magellanic penguins are migratory birds, they only stay on the island from October to mid-April. Each year, the penguins return to their burrows, where the females will lay two eggs in October. Both parents share the task of hatching the eggs for around 39–42 days.
As soon as the chicks hatch around the month of December, they are cared for by both parents for 29 days and are fed every two to three days. Normally, both are raised through adulthood, though occasionally only one chick is raised.
The males are larger than the females, and the weight of both drops while the parents raise their young, as they are too busy to feed their young and have no time to eat for themselves.
Interaction with humans
The penguins on Isla Magdalena are surprisingly fearless of humans, and this colony is an ideal spot for photographers or keen nature lovers hoping for a close-up shot with a friendly penguin.
Of course, visitors should respect certain rules and have to remain on the specially constructed paths and lookout points in order to observe the penguin colony at close range without disturbing them. The penguins are separated from the humans by strings – which the little animals don’t care about at all, they also waddle across the path between the visitors in a completely relaxed manner. Dogs are not allowed either.
Overall, Isla Magdalena is a wonderful place to experience the fascinating wildlife of Patagonia and enjoy the beauty of nature. It is a must for nature lovers and birdwatchers who want to have an unforgettable experience.