The penguins of Punta Tombo, 28 years later

Punta Tombo, which is located on the Patagonian coast of Argentina, is home to the world’s largest Magellanic penguin colony.

Dee Boersma and her team of naturalists have been studying these penguins for 28 years. Back when she began, the Japanese were planning to harvest the penguins for their fur for women’s gloves.

Fortunately Dee and others intervened. And now the penguins are largely protected (at least while they’re on land).

I received a brief newsletter from Dee today with some key data points from her work.

Here’s the good news:

  • Dee and her team first began banding chicks in 1983. And they still track nine of the penguins banded that year.
  • The oldest bird tracked is more than 30 years old.
  • They have sighted more than 2,900 banded chicks over the years. In some cases, they can track the family tree all the way down to the great-great grand chicks. When Dee began they didn’t know just how loyal these penguins were to the colony or to one another. They know so much more today. This is not just amazing data, it’s a family history.

And now the bad news:

  • Penguins are traveling 25 miles further to find food than they did a decade ago. This is not by choice. The food sources have shifted. Every additional mile traveled raises the risk that the chicks waiting back at home could starve (and some do). The colony is shrinking.
  • Now, the reasons why the food has shifted is not so clear. Some blame global warming. Oil spills over the years have certainly factored into it as well. But I believe a major culprit is the fishing industry. The food penguins eat — such as squid and krill — ¬†was largely ignored by the fishing industry a decade ago. Today, it’s a cash crop and fisherman are going to take what is closest to shore. Humans and penguins are now competing for the same food and humans, with their sonar and their mile-long nets, are going to win this battle.

Unless we stop them.

Dee has the data. Now we need to raise awareness so that all countries begin treating the oceans like the finite resource they are instead of an all-you-can eat buffet. This was one of the reasons I wrote The Tourist Trail.

The penguins will be returning to Punta Tombo beginning next week.

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