The black-and-white welcome com­mit­tee

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - CHRIS PRITCHARD

The is­land’s black-and-white wel­com­ing com­mit­tee waits pa­tiently. From a dis­tance, it re­sem­bles a din­ner­suited group of guys ready for a wed­ding. A fel­low tourist on deck dis­agrees. “They re­mind me of nuns in Italy,” she in­sists.

We are on a half-day ex­cur­sion with lo­cal op­er­a­tor Pira Tours to Ye­ca­pasela Re­serve on the un­in­hab­ited Isla Mar­tillo, which is fa­mous for just one rea­son: pen­guins. In the Bea­gle Chan­nel on the out­skirts of Ushuaia, the world’s most south­ern city, the isle is home to about 6000 Mag­el­lanic pen­guins, far out­num­ber­ing its pop­u­la­tion of about 30 gen­toos.

Ushuaia, the cap­i­tal of Ar­gentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, and which styles it­self as Fin Del Mundo (“end of the world”), is closer to Antarc­tica than to Buenos Aires. More Antarc­tic voy­ages leave from here than any­where else. Many of the 24 pas­sen­gers on our 15-minute boat ride to Isla Mar­tilla are ei­ther poised to join Antarc­tic cruises or have re­turned from the ice yet are not, as one snap-frozen voy­ager puts it, “all pen­guined out”.

Our out­ing be­gins at Es­tan­cia Har­ber­ton, near touris- ty Ushuaia (with its ho­tels, restau­rants and sou­venir shops), a city framed by pine forests and snowy peaks. The es­tan­cia (the province’s old­est) is now a cat­tle ranch and was named af­ter an English vil­lage. It’s still run by de­scen­dants of the Bri­tish mis­sion­ary who es­tab­lished it 129 years ago. Pen­guins are the main at­trac­tion, but it’s also worth­while tour­ing the prop­erty and homestead, as well as drop­ping in at the farm’s Museo Aca­tushun with its ex­hibits of Tierra del Fuego’s mam­mals and birds.

An agree­ment be­tween wildlife author­i­ties and cruise op­er­a­tors al­lows 80 pas­sen­gers a day on to the is­land. We keep to des­ig­nated trails. Antarc­tic rules ap­ply: we mustn’t ap­proach wildlife but if pen­guins come close (as they do) that’s fine. One de­light­fully ridicu­lous-look­ing crit­ter wad­dles along­side me through­out my visit.

Back on the boat, I chat to a Ger­man visi­tor. “No po­lar bears!” he com­plains. “I’ll have to wait un­til Antarc­tica.” I try to let him down gen­tly: “You won’t see them there ei­ther. Plenty of pen­guins and seals. Per­haps whales. No po­lar bears … head north to the Arc­tic, not the Antarc­tic.” He nods but clearly is un­con­vinced.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies also run half-day Bea­gle Chan­nel tours in reg­u­lar boats and cata­ma­rans. It’s im­por­tant, I’m told, to check itin­er­ar­ies. I pick a cata­ma­ran vis­it­ing sev­eral islets. At Isla Alicia we an­chor off­shore, watch­ing yawn­ing sea lions sprawled on spray-drenched rocks. At Isla de los Lo­bos and sev­eral other islets we visit colonies of sea lions as well as their smaller (and more play­ful) Amer­i­can fur seal cousins.

Then, at Isla de los Pa­jaros we moor at a peb­bly beach for a guided walk with fauna and flora ex­pla­na­tions. In the dis­tance is Ushuaia and the Tierra del Fuego shore­line from where icy winds blow off snowy peaks, whip­ping warm-clad but shiv­er­ing trav­ellers. We round a French-named is­land light­house called Faro Les Eclaireurs, a his­toric 95 year-old red-and-white striped struc­ture. Al­ba­trosses soar above. Cor­morants, terns and gulls form a feath­ery car­pet on the ground.

Near Ushuaia’s port I find a mar­itime-themed bar and, sec­onds later, I’m cradling a warmed bal­loon of Span­ish brandy. • pi­ra­

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