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Sierra magazine
Explore | Punta Tombo, Argentina


More than 200,000 penguin pairs breed each year at Punta Tombo, many returning to the same burrow every season.

"It's practically impossible to look at a penguin and feel angry.""
—Joe Moore, playwright, actor, newscaster

Because I am in a desert, I can't help stopping in my tracks when I see my first flightless seabird: a Magellanic penguin dozing under a bush. The sleepy squid-eater is oblivious to the incongruity of its presence in an environment known for water-starved life forms. But this is Punta Tombo, in southern Argentina--no ordinary desert.

I keep walking, and soon I can pick out a smattering of penguins from the landscape of dull gray-greens and browns. I continue up a small hill and look down on a great sweep of beach abuzz with tens of thousands more, all milling around as the Atlantic beats on the shore.

A crooked peninsula that juts off the coast of Patagonia, Punta Tombo is home to the world's largest colony of Magellanic penguins. Up to half a million arrive each year to breed. Some waddle more than a quarter mile inland to nests they have used for years.

To see the penguins of Punta Tombo, though, is to have certain popular conceptions of penguin-ness thrown out, and to learn that if one ascribes endearing human traits to them, then other, less savory behaviors should also be acknowledged. For instance, they beat each other bloody, frequently switch mates, sometimes let their offspring starve, and display resolute indifference to their neighbors' welfare. Their cute waddle, it turns out, is simply the most efficient way for a bird designed for swimming to trek across terrain.

But Punta Tombo offers ruminations beyond anthropomorphism. It is a place of great themes, bursting with birth and death and the fierce defiance of the birds--of the chick that planted itself in my path and glared up at me, huffing, daring me to take a step closer. --Eric Wagner

Photo: McDonald Wildlife Photography/Animals Animals; used with permission

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