So you can’t afford that £5000 trip to Antarctica but you still want to see penguins, sea lions and potentially whales in Ushuaia. We managed by booking a half-day excursion with a company called Pira Tour.
Pira Tour is the only company that allows you to visit the penguin island on the Beagle Channel. The group acquired a license which allows them to bring no more than 20 visitors to Isla Martillo. What’s more is there are pretty strict regulations on the island so rest assured that Pira Tour practices responsible tourism.
Logistics: where to buy your ticket, pricing and the tour
There are two outlets from which you can buy your tickets in Ushuaia. On the main street (San Martin) there is a Pira Tour shop where you can discuss options with a guide. Alternatively, by the water front there are a plethora of little shacks housing various tour companies.
We opted for a half-day excursion which cost us £125 each. The price is steep but for us the experience was well worth the price.
Our tour started in Ushuaia where we were driven by bus from the waterfront to the town of Harbourton on the Beagle Channel. As only 20 people are allowed on the island at a time, the group was split into two, one group took a small boat to the penguin island, the other went to a nearby marine mammal anatomy museum. After, we switched. Any spare time was spent in the local tea house.
On the island, you spend an hour visiting the two major colonies; a large local Magellanic penguin colony, and a temporary, much smaller Gentoo penguin colony. You’ll also find skuas, cormorants and if you’re lucky like we were, a sea lion bobbing in the water hoping to catch a meal. As it was close to the end of the Magellanic breeding season (Ushuaia’s summer) in February, there was only one nesting chick on the island. Not to worry though, as the whole beach is full of clumsy youngsters.
After visiting the island and the museum, a large boat will pick you up and take you back to Ushuaia via the Beagle Channel. You’ll stop at the famous Eclaireuse lighthouse and nearby cormorant and sea lion colony, and if you’re lucky like us you’ll be able to see a humpback whale in the channel. Onboard you can easily sit inside with a cup of coffee and a sandwich (though no vegan options, so bring packed lunch if need be) or on the top deck – bring layers!
Without a doubt the Pira Tour excursion was well worth the price and we both had a fantastic day out. Plus, the company definitely gets the journecology ethical sustainable tourism seal of approval.