ISLAS BALLESTAS, PERU: CHASING HUMBOLDT PENGUINS AND SEA LIONS OFF THE COAST OF PERU

 

After a whirlwind speedboat trip from the harbour of Paracas, the Islas Ballestas came into view. These vast rocks poked out of the sea like shrivelled up giant’s toes that had been in the bath too long. The white and grey appearance only added to this illusion, but as we approached it became clear that the white appearance was nothing to do with the rocks, it was the birds.

 

The island had just been taken over by birds. They sat on every inch of exposed rock, making the whole island appear as if it was alive and moving. The guide proudly told us that every few years the Peruvian government sends people to collect the bird’s droppings for exportation to Europe, as much as 10 tons can be exported in a single year.

 

But amongst the tendrils and blue-footed boobies, there was one species in particular we came to see. The Humboldt penguins are pint-sized, podgy balls of fluff that inhabit this coastline. Despite having the appearance of clumsy creatures, the Humboldt penguins were clearly adept climbers and expertly manoeuvred themselves over the rocky outcrops. They have a beautiful white chest, with an elegant horseshoe-shaped stripe of black stretching across the upper part and onto the flippers.

 

The colony on the Islas Ballestas are fairly sedentary and will only risk travelling around 5-15 miles away from the rock to hunt for small fish and sardines. This is probably for the best, as the intense presence of fishing nets in the area pose a threat to the small Humboldt Penguin.

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Almost immediately after leaving the Humboldt penguins, we came face to face with another of the Islas Ballestas prominent inhabitants. Four sea lions, lay perched on the rocks basking in the early morning sun. Their ears, which characteristically separate them from their seal cousins, exposed and perked as they detected the sound of our engines. As we approached they seemed to be un-phased, rolling over on their backs to expose their bellies, full from the previous night’s feeding.

Three sea lions on a rock

As we departed, a large male lazily flopped into the water, with little grace or elegance. As we sped away I was acutely aware of our stalker following us from afar, his small, bobbing head, betraying his presence between the crashing waves. As the islands disappeared from view, so did our inquisitive stalker, heading back to the isolated rocks to bask in the sun.

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