Who could resist the chance to spend time in the company of these endearing black and white ocean-dwellers. The kind of penguin you’re mostly likely to see around these parts is the Magellanic Penguin, which hangs out, unsurprisingly, around the Strait of Magellan amongst other places in Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. The Strait of Magellan is a wide passage of water that slices across the tip of Latin America, separating Tierra del Fuego from the mainland. It forms a natural channel rich in the cuttlefish, sardines, squid, krill, and other crustaceans that make up the penguin’s diet. These particular penguins are considered to be warm weather penguins, although anyone who’s been to the far south of Patagonia might take issue with that description. They are also easy to approach on the coast where they congregate in large flocks to nest in burrows scratched out of the mud. Magellanic penguins can live for up to 25 years in the wild and form mating pairs for life, coming together each year to raise their chicks.
There are quite a number of different whales swimming the southern waters off the coast of Patagonia, but the humpback whale is probably the most often sighted. Although it was once hunted until it was teetering on the edge of extinction, the commercial whaling ban that came into force in 1986 means that it is now on the rebound, and visible again from the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina. These giants of the sea can grow up to 16 metres in length and have a lifespan of between 50 and 100 years. They are a popular subject for whale watchers as they are known for frequently pitching themselves above the surface of the water and slapping it with their fins in a sensational natural display. They are also quite curious about new objects in their environment and so often come to investigate boats.The male humpback whale is also an accomplished singer, with a complex song that he sings for up to an hour at a time. Individual whales can be identified by markings on their tail and pectoral fins, which are unique to each animal.
In many ways, the Patagonian sea lion is the archetypal image of what a sea lion should be. They are bulky and blubbery - an adult male can weigh up to 770 pounds - and have a magnificent mane which gives them their resemblance to lions. On the open water, you might catch sight of a flipper or a nose breaking the surface as they gracefully glide along, but on land it’s a different story altogether. They heft themselves along clumsily, and the males compete for space and to keep control of their harem of females, so they’re often squabbling, growling and roaring, and baring their teeth at one another. Patagonian sea lions are often spotted in the Strait of Magellan where they fish for hake, anchovies, octopus, and even the odd penguin or pelican. Curiously though, whilst prodigious eaters, these sea lions never drink as they get all the water they need from their from food. Both males and females of this species are orange-brown in colour and have an upturned snout, distinguishing them from the South American fur seals that also swim these waters, which have a much flatter muzzle and are dark grey all over.
If you keep your eyes open, there are many kinds of dolphin to be seen off the coast of Patagonia, three of which are often found in the Strait of Magellan. First up, Peale’s dolphin, also called the black-chinned dolphin (no prizes for guessing why!) are the only dolphins that do not whistle. They usually appear in small groups swimming parallel to the shore so you don’t have to venture too far out to be in with a chance of finding them. Peale’s dolphins are easily confused with dusky dolphins as they look similar, especially from a distance. However, dusky dolphins are vocal and will make clicking, whistling and buzzing sounds, which might help you tell them apart. Commerson’s dolphins, on the other hand, are easily recognised by their striking markings. The combination of a white body, with black head tail and fins, is where it gets its common name, the ‘panda dolphin’. They like to breach the water and may surf breaking waves close to the shore, or ride the bow waves of boats, making them a delight to watch.
Patagonia’s rivers and lakes are teeming with freshwater fish. Chile and Argentina have many endemic species of fish including catfish, lamprey and spotted galaxias that are found nowhere else in the world. On top of that, trout - including rainbow trout and brown trout - and salmon also thrive in these crystalline waters, making Patagonia an ideal spot for fly fishing. Both brown and rainbow trout have a reputation for being aggressive fish that will eat almost anything that comes within their reach. This will usually include insects and their larvae, and smaller fish and crustaceans, but they will also have a go at baby birds, mice and voles if they should be unlucky enough to fall in!