Trailing Penguins in Patagonia: Working with Magellanic Penguins

One of the many benefits in getting involved with various conservation efforts across the globe is getting to see the different goals of each project and getting to compare why one project’s goals may be slightly different from another. In the past, when I’ve worked with penguins in conversation efforts, it was with the South African Penguin Project on Robben Island. There are only roughly 50,000 South African Penguins left on the planet, so the work and research collected on Robben Island, while also great for collecting data on the penguin’s habits, is also much more focused on being involved, stepping in, and attempting to save the African Penguin whenever possible. Since their numbers are so few, it’s much more important to try and get involved in ways that can save the penguins and hopefully push for an increase in their numbers rather than a decrease. It’s a much different approach than most of the work done currently with Magellanic Penguins.

This November, I worked on a Penguin Project in Patagonia, one that had us collecting data on Magellanic Penguins, and the first thing I noticed, almost immediately, was that the project was much more focused on collecting data on the penguins to see how the entire ecosystem of the area is affected by them. The lead scientist explained that penguins are good barometers to see how the rest of the ocean environment of the area is doing, and if the penguins are doing well, then we can surmise (within reason) that the rest of the ecosystem in the area is working as it should. She called them ‘bioindicators’ and expressed that they can reveal information regarding the health of the ocean based on their health and habits. And there are between 2 and 3 million Magellanic Penguins currently left in the world. They are in no way endangered like the African Penguins, so the desire to be hands on to save them isn’t so severe. So, immediately, it was more of a hands-off, data collection assignment than a rescue effort, which is also just as interesting in its own way.

When we arrived for the project, a group of volunteers and me all met up and stayed in Trelew. After a night of preparation, we hopped in the project’s van and were driven down to Camarones, where we stayed throughout the project. I will say, right off the bat, that Patagonia is such a wild place. There’s a beautifully breathtaking coastline filled with volcanic rock, desert-like bushes, and dirt as far as the eyes can see. There is also a variety of strange and wonderful desert animals sprinkled all around you. We would drive to Cabo dos Bahias daily and work on the preserve within the Penguin colony. Aside from the many, many penguins we would see, there were guanaco everywhere (which are effectively alpaca-like camelids), peludos (which is Spanish for ‘Big Hairy Armadillos’), European rabbits, Patagonian Mara (which look like strange bunny dogs), foxes, Geoffrey’s Cats (which you would likely never actually see since they are nocturnal), and a variety of predatory birds.

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A Guanaco Taking a Dust Bath

(To add to the interesting traits of the area, the roads are not exactly paved, and while we were deep down near the tip of South America, there are many restaurants that serve Italian foods and Spaetzle, as there were many Italian and German immigrants that came down into Argentina.)

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The Penguin Colony in Cabo Dos Bahias

Our days on the preserve consisted of checking a selection of marked / chosen Magellanic Penguin nests daily throughout the colony in different zones. The birds would be lifted to see if they were sitting on any eggs and the number of eggs would then be recorded. They would be marked red for females and blue for males, and we would check them to see if they were tagged. Keeping detailed accounts of this information has helped the team understand the logistics of this specific colony, one that seems to have its own timetables and trends that differ from other Magellanic Penguins. Most of the nests in this colony varied from being hidden under bushes to being open and in the shade of the coastline. There were areas we referred to as ‘penguin condos’ that consisted of a large grouping of penguin nests dug into the dirt all close together.

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In our briefing mid-week, lead scientist Gabriela S. Blanco, PhD explained to us that the Magellanic Penguins in South America are migrating more up north overall. The Northern colonies eat only anchovies, while the middling area of penguins in South America has a less diverse diet. Penguins who eat anchovies have better mating seasons, so they’ve been instinctively moving up north where the food is better for them. In the colony we were observing in Cabo dos Bahias, sometimes they have anchovies, and some years they do not, and the food available has been shown to affect the results of the colony’s breeding success.

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A Peludo / Big Hairy Armadillo Hunting for Penguin Eggs

With this penguin colony, the males seem to find their old nests and get them ready to breed again in September. In October, the females come to the nest and mate. They lay the eggs in mid-October, and they are the ones who take the first incubation shifts. So, the females don’t eat any food or drink any water for roughly 20 days while the males go out to see to eat, fatten up, and prepare for their turn incubating the eggs. In this colony, these initial trips of the males last for roughly 23 days while the females incubate the eggs. This is colony dependent, but this data is specific for the colony we were researching. The females get smaller and dirtier as they wait for the male counterparts to return and trade shifts with them. Then, they switch, and the females come back around day 40, as this is when the eggs will begin to hatch. If the male stays out longer than 20 days, the female must make the accommodation. For instance, if a male is out for 25 days, the female must return in 15 to be ready in time for the eggs to hatch. Select pairs in this colony instead also do 4-day shifts, with the male leaving for 4 days during incubation and then returning while the female goes out for 4 days and so on.

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Once the eggs hatch, they go out to sea in two-day shifts to get food and bring it back to the nest for the babies. In January, the waterproof feathers for the chicks come in, and February marks their first time on their own. March is malting season, and in April they leave to migrate until September. With these penguins, the males and females move to different locations during migration with the females going farther away from the colony but staying in more shallow water and the males staying closer but diving deeper. The females in this colony move to roughly the south of Uruguay while the males go only up as far as Buenos Aires.

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Of course, for the project, control nests are tagged and left alone other than to observe from a distance. Currently, it has been found that control nests have less breeding success (by just a small amount) likely because human interaction at the researched nests may be scaring off predators.

The weather down in Patagonia was just as chaotic as the landscape. It was usually quite windy, so it was important to bundle up as we were making our rounds. Layers were crucial, as it could go from windy and cold to sunny and hot within just a few minutes. So, I brought my new adidas Essentials Insulated Hooded Jacket with me, and it was a lifesaver. It served as the perfect protection against the unpredictable winds while also being light and breathable enough for when the weather warmed. And my Adicolor Corduroy Fleece Mix Jacket was the perfect choice to wear while out exploring the towns of Camarones and Trelew. The whole week I was climbing into penguin nests and moving up and down around the terrain with ease thanks to the right activewear.

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Aside from our daily nest rounds, we stayed in a small beach house on the beautiful coastline of Camarones, and it was an experience I’ll frankly never forget. The sea mixed with the desert landscape plus the natural charm of Argentina really made this field work special. Plus, I always have a soft spot in my heart for Argentina, and a few days in, we found out that there was a Juan Peron family museum in Camarones, as his family had lived here when he was a child to raise sheep. So, naturally, I had to stop in there, and aside from offering a glimpse into Peron’s childhood home, it had a very interesting collection of Peron memorabilia, and it was really quite an exceptional pitstop. If you ever find yourself visiting the natural preserves down in Patagonia and you stop in Camarones, I highly encourage you to check out the Peron Museum for a dose of Argentine history found in a very unlikely place.

I guess, to summarize, I just can’t get enough of working with penguins. I love working with different colonies and different types of penguins around the world, as they all have their own unique habits and leave behind a very distinct set of footprints. From collecting Magellanic Penguin data to analyzing their behaviors and how it affects the overall ecosystem to going more hands-on to save some of the dwindling types of penguins, it’s a passion of mine that I will never get tired of. While I travel for work regularly, I find that in my personal trips I want to give back and make a difference, so those are the adventures I choose to volunteer for. I’d rather volunteer in my personal life and vacations instead of making grandiose trips elsewhere, because I want to give back. I get to see the world while I’m working so when it’s time for fun, I want to make a difference. If you want to give back and get involved in conservation efforts but don’t know where to start, I encourage you to check out Earthwatch. Through donations or time and / or money, you can make a difference in our world one project at a time.

Malorie Mackey is an actress, published author, and adventurer. Malorie grew up in Richmond, Virginia where she loved sports, the outdoors, animals, and all forms of art. She took to acting at a young age, so it was no surprise when she decided to go to college for theatre. While in college, Malorie studied body movement with the DAH Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia, voice in Herefordshire, England with Frankie Armstrong, and the business of theatre in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Malorie moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles after receiving her BFA in Theatre Performance from Virginia Commonwealth University. Upon arriving in LA, Malorie participated in the Miss California USA 2011 Pageant where she won the “Friend’s Choice” Award (by popular vote) and received a beautiful award for it.

While living on the West Coast, Malorie accumulated over 40 acting credits working on a variety of television shows, web series, and indie films, such as the sci-fi movie “Dracano,” the Biography Channel show “My Haunted House,” the tv pilot “Model Citizen” with Angie Everhart, and the award-winning indie film “Amelia 2.0.”

Throughout her experiences, Malorie found a love for travel and adventure, having journeyed to over a dozen countries experiencing unique locations. From the lush jungles of the Sierra Madre mountain range to the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, Malorie began adventuring and writing about her unique travels. These travel excerpts can be found on VIVA GLAM Magazine, in Malorie’s Adventure Blog, in Malorie’s adventure show: “Weird World Adventures” and in the works for her full-length travel book.

In 2022, Malorie was thrilled to become a member of the Explorer’s Club through her work on scientific travel. Her experiences volunteering on archaeological and anthropological expeditions as well as with animal conservation allowed her entry into the exclusive club. Since then, Malorie has focused more on scientific travel.

Malorie’s show “Weird World Adventures” releases on Amazon Prime Video in the Spring of 2024! Stay tuned as Malorie brings the strangest wonders of the world to you!

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