I, Turbo, the Magellanic Penguin

A charming Magellanic penguin warms the hearts of scientists sent to study the endangered birds.


| May/June 2012



Magellanic Penguins

After a day spent battling penguins, Turbo was a welcome balm. Every other Magellanic penguin might snap at us, but Turbo ran out to greet us whenever we passed his bush.

ERIC WAGNER

The scars cover my arms, my hands. The most impressive are on the soft flesh between my thumb and forefinger, two-inch-long seams, angry and pink. I’d use them to get sympathy, but El, my wife, looks worse. Although we are similarly marked, her skin is darker, her crosshatchings and scores more vivid. When people see us, they ask what on earth happened. What can we say? The penguins of Punta Tombo are vicious.

Punta Tombo is a desert peninsula on the southern coast of the Patagonia region of Argentina, home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. Every year, close to half a million come to breed along the miles of rugged coastline.

El and I had gone at the behest of Dee Boersma, a professor at the University of Washington. Her suggestion was at once casual and absurd: How would you two like to spend the next six months in a leaky trailer, getting bitten and beaten 14 hours a day without a day off, ever? Dee’s college courses were notable for their strong moral underpinnings. “This is values science,” she said. “You can’t listen to everything I’m about to tell you and not feel anything.” Dee could get away with this approach because she had studied the colony at Punta Tombo for 25 years and had been called the Jane Goodall of penguins.

“A lot of chicks are going to die,” I said to El, for she is a champion of cute and vulnerable creatures.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I know how it works.”

“They might die horribly,” I persisted. “Right in front of you. And you couldn’t do a thing about it.”

robin birkland
5/16/2012 1:18:12 PM

Absolutely loved this article! (great writing!). The animal kingdom is so awesome, as are the Scientists who study it and bring us their results and phenomenal stories. Hail, I, Turbo! Thanks for sharing your unique perspective connection.