Monday, July 22, 2013

Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve (Humboldt Penguin National Reserve)

From Vicuna, our plan was to bypass La Serena and go north up the coast to the Humboldt penguin reserve. Leaving the Pan-American at Trapiche, we followed a dirt road past Choros Bajos to Caleta Punta Choros. We had heard varying reports on the condition of the road but it was in fairly good shape with hard compacted dirt and only a few “washboard” areas. We were disappointed when we arrived that the few camping possibilities that were advertised were all closed for the winter. As we drove from one to another, we were getting closer to the wharf and CONAF office where boats left for the islands. After checking out the pier, at least now we know where to come in the morning, we drove to the north end of town to a secluded cliff overlooking the beach and with relatively easy access for Winston to run. The next morning, the first thing I did was check the weather outside. We are lucky, it looks fairly calm. When we had visited Mamalluca Observatory, Richard (the California gentleman) had said he had come from here but the weather had been too rough and the boats were cancelled, so he missed out on the penguins. We do have the luxury of waiting a few days but would rather get further north. However, when we got to the pier we were told that the islands are currently closed on Monday and Tuesday. Today is Tuesday! They said for us to return in the morning. This is a tiny fishing village and it is winter so there is very little to do or see. We return to our place on cliff and park for another night. Winston has a great time, running on the beach with a couple of other dogs and Tom decides to do a couple of maintenance projects around the motorhome. I clean, sweep and do some writing as I am woefully behind. We actually enjoyed the laziness of the day after being so busy sight-seeing in the Elqui Valley. The following morning we showed up as directed at 9:30am. Besides the fisherman and the man at the ticket office, there is no-one around. We are now told that there needs to be a minimum of 10 people for the boat to leave. Shoot. However we were told just to wait as usually other tourist arrives and often a tour from La Serena gets to the dock around 10:30. Sure enough, within the space of an hour or so, three other couples arrived and then a small bus with about 8 older ladies on board. Yeah! I walk over to the CONAF office to get the required tickets to walk on Isla Damas and was surprised to learn that today it is free. A savings of about $10.00 but I could not discover why today there is no charge. We were then taken to the dock, provided with life jackets that we were told to wear at all times on the boat and then we were off. The Pingüino de Humboldt National Reserve (Humboldt Penguin National Reserve) is a protected nature reserve located about 6 Km (4 miles) off the coast of mainland Chile. Consisting of three islands: Islas Chañaral, Damas and Choros, it has a total area of 859.3 hectares (2,123 acres). The reserve takes its name from the Humboldt Penguin that nests on the rocky island of Isla Choros. These penguins breed along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists them as a “vulnerable species” with only an estimated population of 12,000 breeding pairs. They say that if conservation measures are not put in place, the species could become extinct in the next few decades. The possibility of seeing penguins in this area, near the Atacama Desert is something extremely exceptional and it’s because of the Humboldt Current, a cold, low-salinity ocean current that flows north-westward along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru. Our boat will take us first to Isla Choros and then to Isla Damas for a total trip of about 4 hours. It is June and winter so many of the penguins and other species have left but we are told there are still some penguins to see. Landing is not permitted on Isla Choros and so we begin to circle the island. The first thing we saw was a solitary Humboldt penguin on a small cliff but it did not take long to see several groups of them on the shore. They are similar to a Magellan penguin but a little smaller and with extra bands of black around the face and head. Besides the penguins, we see several large sea lion colonies, groups of otters playing in the water and slithering over rocks and massive rookeries of cormorants, gulls, boobies and a myriad of other species that we could not identify. As we continued to circle the island, with the boat captain pointing out various rock formations, fauna and of course penguins, pods of bottle-nosed dolphins come very close to the boat. As they cavorted in the water beside us, seemingly showing off for the tourists, the cameras were clicking. We wound our way through natural arches made from the erosion of rock over the millenniums where the water was quite choppy and around several coves and inlets before turning to head to Isla Damas. This island is the closest of the all three to the mainland and the only one where boats can land. There is usually a mandatory fee, payable to CONAF (today is free) and a maximum of 60 visitors per day who can only stay1 hour, due to conservation efforts to keep tourism at a minimum and reduce impact on the island’s bird population. A ranger greets us, takes our names and where we are from. She then showed a map of the island and the various trails and we were cautioned to be back at the dock within one hour. The small island is capped by a granite summit and has two snowy white sandy beaches. Playa La Poza where we landed is gorgeous and we take some photos before starting on the trail that will take us to Playa Tijeras, a 1km. walk away. From there we will circle back to the dock. The trail is well maintained and easy to follow. The fine white sandy beach of Playa Tijeras comes into view as we round a cliff and it is also beautiful with calm, turquoise blue water. Darn, if it were summer and warmer we could go for a swim but right now the ocean is pretty chilly so we content ourselves with taking some photos. From there it is another easy half mile (1Km) walk back to the wharf. There are quite a few different species of birds which call this place home and we try to identify as many as we could on the return trip. The last spectacle of the trip came on the return journey back to Caleta Punta Choros. Off to the left the captain spied a plume of water and the driver immediately slowed the boat and gently steered it towards… a whale. A hump-backed whale to be more exact and according to the captain, a young one. We watched as he swam in slow circles around the boat, flipping his fluke and spouting water from time to time. It was quite a show and a great finale to a fabulous boat trip. By the time we arrived back it was four o’clock and Winston greeted us exuberantly. Since it is late, we will camp out on “our” cliff for one more night before leaving. That evening we grilled some chicken and had a glass of wine as we watched the sun set. What a great day. We are glad we made the detour to come.

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