Perils of Polly: Penguins, sea lions and dolphins, oh my

Sea lions in Los Choros, Chile.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

We awoke parked next to a cantina with a bright azure sky overhead. Would we be able to see the Humboldt penguins today? Or would the weather continue to keep the tourists away?


My sister and I had left the rains of southern Chile just to see the penguins. We picked our way down the gravel road to the tiny national park village of Los Choros. The wind was pretty steady, but the sea didn't look THAT wavy.

We were joined by a few Chilean tourists and boat operators. It was early yet, 7 a.m. The sign read in Spanish, "Closed because of bad weather."

We shrugged and were going to leave when one of the boat operators told us to hang around. They might decide to open it up. Finally, at 9 a.m., the person who looked like a national park official took the sign down. The park was open. We paid our fees, got a life jacket on, and headed to the little skiff that held about 12 people.

It began as a great trip. We saw the penguins, sea lions, sea otters, pelicans, and cormorants. But bottlenose dolphins had been promised. I love seeing all marine mammals, including dolphins, but I wasn't willing to put my life on the line to see them!

Apparently others were. We headed out from the relatively calm waters behind Isla Choros into the open water. Now I saw why the waters had been closed! We bobbed in giant waves like a cork, seeing the horizon only occasionally. A short distance to the right waves were crashing into a rocky reef. At the time I didn't know we were looking for dolphins. I thought the driver wanted to go around the island for some unknown reason. Every once in a while the engine would quit. We'd drift toward the crashing waves and it start back up again. We pulled some Visqueen up over us. We were getting soaked. I was definitely ready for him to head back to calmer waters. I had no idea what we were doing or why. The motor cutting in and out was definitely making me nervous!

Suddenly someone screamed. There they were, their fins cutting graceful arcs through the water to our right. I struggled to get photos. Each time I snapped, the fin went back under water, so I videod instead. At least I now understood what was going on.

Finally we left the dolphins and headed to another island, Isla Damas. I was relieved I could now see over the waves.

We had about half hour to explore Isla Damas, and it was beautiful. The white sandy beach and aqua water was inviting, and many jumped in. I waded and turned my ankles bright red with the icy water. I shook my head. Nope. This water was too cold even for me -- even for an Alaskan who swims in a lake in June!

It was only noon by the time we got back, so it was on the road again -- north. Ever north. Chile is very long.

Dusk settled when we were in the vicinity of Bahia Inglesa, so we started looking for a campground. This was another beach community, and judging by the housing, restaurants and hotels, it was probably a pretty expensive place.

We stopped numerous people to find a campground, and kept heading in the direction they would point, until at the end of one street we found a huge, drivable, mostly empty beach. We also saw one motorhome parked on it. Hmmm.

"Let's just stay here -- under that street lamp." By now it was dark.

I got out and let Sue get the camper bubble level. I looked at the huge beach and remarked, "I hope it doesn't have tides like Alaska." Then I looked back toward the road and began laughing. "Look, Sue, tents! We're camping NEXT to the campground!"

She shrugged. "Well, I know it's cheaper!"

The next morning, we noticed we had been joined in the "free" camping area by about five more tents and campers. And the tide had not gotten us.

We filled our gas tank and water jugs on the way out of town, then pressed north, this time to Pan de Azucar National Park. It was only a four-hour drive but Sue had said she wanted to camp early so we could dry out. Our tent was still wet from Chaiten, and we hoped it hadn't gotten moldy.

We set up the dripping mass of nylon and washed a lot of clothes, despite the fact they told us there was such a severe water shortage we couldn't wash clothes. After all, we had brought our own water and their bathroom, like all the others, had leaky pipes so we didn't feel compelled to be real conservative.

Then we set out to explore Pan de Azucar.

Check back next week for more of Polly's perils.