Penguin Sentry: The Passion to Protect a Threatened Bird in the South

The biologist Esteban Frere roams around Quiroga Island, one of the nine that make up the Deseado River, that geographic feature of more than 40 kilometers by which the sea enters the continent. Until that piece of land that the researcher walks through, from September to April, every year the Magellanic penguins arrive to reproduce.

For the scientist, these birds, which are classified as vulnerable, represent not only their kind of study for more than 30 years, but the desire to protect them from human threats: indiscriminate fishing, pollution of the sea and coasts and effects of climate change. For the penguins, which in the country number about two million, he became a kind of sentinel. “They are good guardians of the sea because they indicate the health conditions of the ocean,” he explains.

Today, a cool and windy Thursday that does not escape the Patagonian tradition, Frere is about to place some geolocation devices on 21 specimens to unveil his mysterious migratory route. Knowing precisely the journey they travel by sea from April to September, without ever touching the continent, will determine which areas could be protected from their main threats.

It is believed that these birds travel to the north of the country, to end in southern Brazil. Then they return to the point of origin, where they reunite with their partner and nest in the same place as the previous season. However, last year, when the biologists did a pilot test in just six specimens, they were surprised: some of the birds were diverted to the south of the country and then they resumed their usual route.

It is near noon and the wind does not let up. The climatic conditions are not the best to navigate the entire estuary. For this reason, the captain of the boat that transports Frere with his team and about 20 journalists from provincial and national media, including LA NACION, decides to limit the visit to only Quiroga Island.

Despite the wind, the emerald green sea remains calm. You will have to navigate between brown and gray canyons, which the water and the wind eroded to your liking, to reach that island that is only inhabited by some 3000 Magellanic penguins and that is prohibited from entering tourists. This river, which in the 19th century was visited by Charles Darwin, is not only an intangible natural reserve since the 70s, but also a provincial reserve as of 2010. Biodiversity here is not an abstract idea: it is estimated that there are twenty of seabird species, sea lions, as well as cetaceans such as the tonina overa or the southern dolphin, among others.

When arriving at the island Quiroga, Frere moves to his wide ones. The Argentine south is for this porteño of 54 years almost his second home. He came to Patagonia for the first time in 1984, while studying for a degree in Biological Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires. That same year he settled in Camarones, in Chubut, to begin studying the species that would sign him life: the Magellanic penguin. After graduating he settled in Punta Tombo, the largest chubutense penguin colony in the country. Then, he toured the coast of Santa Cruz to find the trail of these birds. And one day in 1989 it reached the southernmost part of this province, Cabo Vírgenes. “An absolutely inhospitable territory,” he describes, to portray that land at the mouth of the Strait of Magellan, which is characterized by the strength of its winds.

Penguin the passion to protect a threatened bird in the south

Then there was only one lighthouse and a house there, where he stayed with other young biologists to do his doctorate. In that town he spent the summer and returned to Buenos Aires to process the data he had collected during the campaign, write and teach.

While monitoring his species of study, Frere fell in love with a colleague, also specialized in these birds. And, how could it be otherwise, love found them while they were doing field work in a penguin colony at Cabo Dos Bahias, in Chubut. They got married and, in 1993, they decided to move to Puerto Deseado, where they continued with their field studies. They had two children. In 2004, after separating, they returned to settle in Buenos Aires. However, Frere never finished moving away from the city.

Here he leads the conservation project of the Magallanes penguin, of which Conicet participates; the National University of the Southern Patagonia and the ONG Foundation Temaikèn and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, by its acronym in English), along with the company Pan American Energy (PAE), that finances this initiative of conservation and invited to the NATION and others means to know the project.

The operation

On Quiroga Island, with sandy soil and small shrubs under which the penguins nest, Frere goes in search of one of the birds. He stops at a nest that, along with his team, he had marked with a fluorescent yellow ribbon attached to a bush that still resists the gusts. Examine the animal to detect a tiny metal square attached to a leg. The brand indicates that the specimen is one of the 400 preselected, for their good health, to place a solar geolocator (GLS). The device will help researchers pinpoint the path they take when they migrate.

Carefully, Frere takes the selected penguin by the neck. With this maneuver, he seeks to avoid any injury: the beak of the animal ends in a hook and can easily tear any prey. Frere walks about 30 meters to a rock, where he sits. Survey the animal on its skirt. One of her collaborators, biologist Melina Barrionuevo, 34, places the bird on the GLS on one of the legs.

“These devices do not affect the swim, you have to be very careful with the devices that are placed on them because any element that could harm them can be life threatening,” explains Carina Righi, head of the Department of Conservation and Research of the Temaikèn Foundation. , while noting the device number that was placed on the unit.

When the operation ends, Frere returns the animal to its nest, where it is reunited with its female. A little further on, it is moving to see a couple walking “taken” from the fins. And a few meters away, sad to see the bodies of the pigeons or the remains of some 400 specimens slaughtered by wild dogs that managed to cross the island at low tide.

That’s what Frere is talking about. And, also, why, among so many species that inhabit the Earth, he decided to dedicate his life to the Magellanic penguin, except when he was “unfaithful” to study another typical bird of the estuary, the gray cormorant. “With the penguins you can answer a lot of scientific questions, they are animals that handle manipulations and experiments, with care, always respecting the rules of animal health, they are very loyal to their colony, in fact, you can mark them and, the following year, is going to return to the same place, “he says, to explain his fascination for these seabirds, which in a couple of days will leave the island that today roams him, his sentinel.

The conservation project

The species

By spending a large part of their lives in the water, the Magellanic penguin is a key factor in understanding the environmental health of the sea. Its study allows to implement recommendations for the conservation of marine areas.

State of preservation

The species is listed as “almost threatened” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and as vulnerable in Argentina.

Main threats

The effects of climate change, uncontrolled fishing, pollution of the coasts and the sea, unregulated tourism and the expansion of their natural predators.

The objectives of the program

Make a complete study of the ecology of the Magellanic penguin and obtain technical knowledge so that governments have information that allows them to identify which areas to protect and conserve. It also seeks to raise awareness among the population of the area about the status of the species and its importance to the ecosystem.


The initiative includes Pan American Energy (PAE), Conicet, the National University of Southern Patagonia, Temaikèn Foundation and Wildlife Conservation Society. This year, biologists placed geolocators to 21 adult specimens to study the migratory route. Between September and October, the devices will be recovered and the information will be analyzed.



Source: La Nacion