Estancia Harberton: Penguins!
Yécapasela Reserve (Isla Martillo)
The estancia, which covers 50.000 acres of mountains, forests, lakes and islands, has, since the opening of the road in 1978, been managed as a working nature reserve. Two parts of the reserve are special: ‘The Park’ at the homestead, which has been fenced since the 1890s, and Isla Yécapasela (the native name; it is Isla Martillo on the maps) and its surrounding islands in the Beagle Channel. Originally used by the Bridges family for sheep and even cattle (forming instant fields in the early days), these were removed in the 1960s and penguins have resettled on Yecapasela.
As of 2009, Yécapasela has a colony of 3000 pairs of Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus), 16 pairs of gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua)- the only rookery in continental Argentina- and 155 pairs of rock cormorants (Phalacrocorax magellanicus) nest on the cliffs to the south. This penguin colony, the only one reachable from Ushuaia, is growing gradually each year. Yécapasela is a great habitat for these penguins, as there are very few predators in the area, abundant food and the ground and vegetation provide adequate shelter for nests and chicks.
Penguins start to arrive on the island early in October to start their annual breeding season, raise their chicks and molt their feathers. Around late March and first days of April, penguins leave to begin their usual migration northward, and will feed at sea for more than 6 months, until the winter is over and spring calls them again to breed on land.
At Yécapasela you may also see the predatory skua (Catharacta chilensis), and very occasionally, a king penguin (Aptenodytes patagonica) may visit.
To see the penguins:
From catamarans: a number of catamarans come to Isla Yécapasela daily from Ushuaia; some return directly to Ushuaia. As mentioned above, three of them continue on to the Harberton homestead. The catamarans run ashore on the island, just beside the penguins, which pay no attention at all. Passengers are not permitted to disembark.
Walk with the penguins: by agreement with Estancia Harberton, the Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas (CADIC) in Ushuaia and the Government of Tierra del Fuego, 80 persons in four groups per day are permitted to walk among the penguins on a designated trail. For safety reasons people are only allowed to walk on the island with a specialized tour guide, in a limited area and under very specific rules, which help us keep both visitors and penguins happy. Part of a scientific experiment on the effect of humans on the penguins, this walk is among the Magellanic penguins; the gentoo penguins are more touchy and must not be disturbed.
The present concession for these trips is the PiraTour company: the trips (15 minutes by boat each way, one hour on the island) leave only from the Harberton homestead. You can come to Harberton by your own vehicle or the PiraTour bus, but make your prior reservations for the trip to the island in Ushuaia (www.piratour.com.ar). If not, the reservations may be filled. As noted elsewhere, those who come on the PiraTour bus do not have time for the Homestead Tour or the Museo Acatushún.