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Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, March 20, 2000

Harsh land has
nature’s best dressers

I recently returned from a monthlong trip to Patagonia, a place so remote that even as I flew there, I didn't know exactly where I was going. "Isn't that a store in Haleiwa?" a reader joked by email when I wrote where I had been. "Man, talk about women shoppers!"

It's true that for most of us, Patagonia is a brand of high-quality outdoor clothing. But this trade name, I discovered, is apt. The real Patagonia is a wild and rugged place that demands sturdy gear, warm clothes and an appetite for adventure.

Patagonia isn't a country but rather a region like our American West or Africa's Serengeti Plain. The 300,000-square-mile area runs across southern Argentina and Chile, encompassing some of the most majestic peaks of the Andes Mountains and one of the largest deserts in the world.

The oceanic edges of this land are as fierce as its interior. To the east and west lie the notoriously stormy Southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans and to the south, separating the region from Tierra del Fuego, cut the Straits of Magellan.

Magellan is a big name in this region, as it should be. Ferdinand Magellan, leader of the expedition that first circumnavigated the globe, discovered the famous strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Like Columbus before him, Magellan believed he could sail to the Spice Islands (Indonesia's Moluccas) by sailing west, either around or through the New World. Therefore, in 1519, with five ships and 270 men, this Portuguese explorer boldly set sail from Spain for Brazil. From there, Magellan took his fleet south, looking for a passage to the Pacific.

Mutiny attempts, storms and the cold weather of Patagonia made the expedition a nightmare, yet Magellan forged on. In the brutal cold of the southern winter, he continued down the Argentinean coast. Finally, in October, the fleet sighted an opening and headed in.

SAILING through this twisting strait was no picnic. Dozens of dead-end bays and inlets lay everywhere, offering false promises of a passage through.

Magellan sent small boats ahead to scout the way. When a section was found navigable, he moved the big ships forward. After 38 days of such slow going, the ships emerged to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.

Magellan named the passage the Strait of All Saints, but it was later named after him.

Lots of other things in Patagonia are also named after Magellan. High on my list of favorites is the Magellanic penguin, a species that nests along the coasts and islands of the region. One such colony near the port town of Punta Arenas is open to the public.

The first creature I saw at the penguin colony was a Patagonian fox searching, no doubt, for penguin pupus. When I asked the refuge manager about this, she said the foxes take only unguarded chicks since adults are able to beat the foxes off with their flailing flippers.

The chicks had mostly left the colony when I was there. The adults, about 30 inches tall, were all molting, giving them a sluggish and decrepit air. But this phase doesn't last long. In a few weeks, these creatures will perk up and once again be nature's best-dressed birds.

Now that I've seen Magellanic penguins in the wild, I'm dying to revisit their nearly identical relatives here in Hawaii. The Hawaiian Hilton Village hosts seven blackfoot (or jackass) penguins, natives of South Africa. Also, several Humboldt (or Peruvian) penguins, native to Chile and Peru, live at Sea Life Park.

Before I go, though, I have some shopping to do in Haleiwa.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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