The Reserva Nacional Pinguino Humboldt is a 860-hectare reserve encompassing several offshore islands about two hours north of La Serena. The reserve is named after the Humboldt Penguins that nest on Ilsa Choros. Visitors come to the island in small boats and remain on the water while viewing the nesting penguins and their neighbours the sea lions, boobies, cormorants, sea otters and pelicans. Tours are cancelled if the costal fog is too thick or the waves too large to make safe viewing possible.
We were the luckiest of lucky visitors. There was no costal fog the morning we left La Serena and as the winds were light, the sea was relatively calm. We climbed into the surprisingly small boat along with our nine other travellers and I was delighted to be asked to sit on the front bench where I would have an unobstructed view for picture taking. An English woman travelling on her own was seated to my right and we soon learned how happy she was to be able to have “a conversation, an actual conversation’ with another English-speaking person.
We reached Ilsa Choros in less than twenty minutes and were stunned to see a colony of penguins sitting on just above our heads as we toss in the surf caused by the waves crashing on the rocks. The smell was overpowering, but we didn’t mind, the penguins were so cute. There were adults as well as their chicks, though the chicks were already quite grown and were beginning to shed their baby feathers.
As we continued along the coast of the island, we had the most amazing access to all the wildlife. I had been very worried about being seasick, but the tossing and turning of the boat didn’t bother me for even one second. We seemed to move forward and back without any tossing from side to side and I think that was why I was fine in the huge surf. The captain of the boat was a master and I still can’t believe how he handled us getting in so close to the crashing surf. The boat ride alone would have been worth the cost of the trip, even if we didn’t see a single marine animal or bird.
I will leave it to you to view the photos I’ve posted on this entry, to get a sense of the wonderful sights we saw. The only animal I didn’t get a good photo of was the sea otter, he was busy floating on his back just in front of our boat, eating something he had found in the sea. He was totally focused on his meal and didn’t seem to care whether we were watching him or not. Once we had our fill our hovering around the sea lion colonies and watching the pelicans and boobies fly above us, we headed out to deeper water over the most incredible high waves in order to look for the bottlenose dolphins that swim on the southern tip of Ilsa Choros. Another boat captain called on a cell phone to tell us where to locate the pod and before we knew it they were leaping and splashing their tails all around us. I managed to take some decent video of their playful antics but can’t post them here as the files are too large. I may open an account on YouTube in order to share them with friends, please let me know if you wish to view them.
When the dolphins had had enough fun entertaining us, we would never have given up watching them, we turned our boat towards the small Ilsa Damas where we would be able to get off the boat and explore the island for a short while. There are careful controls to ensure that no more than 160 people are on the island at any one time. There are two pristine white sand beaches on the island and a small outcropping of rock that forms the shape of a seated, well-endowed woman, hence the island name. There were several people camping on the island despite the extremely limited services. There are toilets but visitors must bring all their food and water and ensure that everything they bring, is taken away again. I was reminded of the slogan used at the ‘Burning Man Festival’ held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada - Leave No Trace.
Anil, Maureen and I made the short climb up the rocky path, outlined with white painted rocks. We were told to stay within the boundaries in order to preserve the plants growing on the island. I took a few photos of the ones near the path, fascinating plants, a couple of them were flowering. The view from the top of the rock pile was terrific, we could see the distant white sand beach and the turquoise water along the shore. Off in the distance, we could see Ilsa Choros and knew that there were other boats full of visitors relishing the astonishing access to the wildlife there.
No one seemed to mind the two-hour drive back to La Serena, we were all lost in the wonder of what we had seen. I know several people who have visited the Galapagos, far off the coast of Ecuador. I still can’t believe that we were able to visit this amazing reserve with such ease. I know we have to thank the cold Humboldt Current for creating an environment where penguins can flourish so very far north along the coast of South America. It hasn’t bothered us in the least that we weren’t able to swim in the beaches south of the region, the penguins more than made up for a dip in the ocean.