Hunting penguins

We signed up to the boat trip on the promise of penguins. Humbolt penguins to be exact. Who doesn’t love penguins? They are a ridiculously cute breed of bird. So a boat trip around the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt – a marine reserve just off the coast of Chile – sounded like a fantastic day.

We started out early, picked up from our hostel in La Serena, and spent the best part of the morning driving to Los Choros, a tiny fishing village where brightly coloured boats lined the shore. After negotiating our way from the jetty to the boat – which was being pushed every which wave by the rising tide – we were off. I was very excited at the idea that I would soon be seeing penguins.

As we approached the first island – Isla de Chanaral – our guide was cheerily giving us a basic lesson in biology, listing the animals and birds that could be found here. I was scanning the waters for the playful birds, but found none. Where were they?

We drew closer to the island, into a small cove, where we had our first animal sighting of the day – sea lions. They weren’t hard to spot, there were hundreds of these beasts lying prostrate on the rocks in the sunshine. A few of them eyed us suspiciously as we cruised by, and one or two roused themselves enough to bark a warning at us.

The next cove contained birdlife – cormorants and boobies (feel free to snigger childishly at that name, I do every time). Again they were interesting, but again they they were not penguins. I was starting to get quite anxious.

“Look there, a penguin!”

I turned my head in the direction our guide was excitedly pointing, and there on the distant shoreline, standing on a rock was a fuzzy grey blob.

“Donde?” I ask. Where?

“There, there,” said our guide. “You can make him out because his stomach is white.”

They steered the boat closer to the island, closer to the grey blob.

I looked again, staring hard and then yes, I saw the white spot, and then I saw him! He was small and greyish and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I am sure it was cute. And then just when I was getting really excited about seeing a penguin in the wild, the little bastard turned his back on me.

I doubt it was personal. But it may as well have been because the instant, he reverted to fuzzy grey blob. Without seeing the white spot on his stomach, I couldn’t distinguish his grey back from the grey rocks around him.

“That’s how they camouflage themselves,” our guide explained helpfully.

My short-sghted eyes stood no chance of against this highly-evolved back-turning camouflage technique; he was gone. My Humbolt penguin had humbly bolted, and I was left feeling just a little let down. Where were the hundreds of boisterous penguins tap-dancing on the shore? Why weren’t they waving and beckoning us over? I wanted Happy Feet and all I got was a shy fella who didn’t want a bar of us.

Ten minutes later, however, we did see two curious sea otters who made up for the lack of penguins. They were cute, really cute, and they swam around the boat once or twice before clamouring behind a rock and them playing peek-a-boo with us.

Shortly after we pulled up to the second island, Isla de Damas, the one island within the marine reserve that we were actually allowed to walk on. The waters were every shade of blue, and the beaches were marvellously untouched. We wandered all over the island, following sandy paths to vantage points where we could sit and watch the waves crash on rocks. A – ever the surfer – was giving me an appraisal of the waves. I was still looking for penguins. Unfortunately none came out of the water to wave at me.

On the way back to the boat I told A of my minor disappointment.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

Oh I don’t know. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling penguins tumbling and diving all around us? And maybe a penguin shooting itself out of the water, landing it the boat and giving me a high-five with it’s flipper? (Okay, no, I didn’t expect that. But how unreal would that have been!)

“Well, when you think about it, penguins are wild animals. Wild animals that don’t like humans and that can swim away as soon as they hear a boat. It kind of makes sense we didn’t see many.”

Damn you logic. Damn you Happy Feet.

Guess I should just be grateful for the fuzzy blob who was either brave enough, deaf enough or stupid enough to stay put.

Still, he could have waved.

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