The Penguins of Brazil

I had set my umbrella and chair near the water in the early hours of what would soon become a perfect summer day. Like most people, I prefer the beach when it is deserted, and I had the place all to myself, no vendors to be seen, parading their sunglasses and suntan oils; no drinks, sandwiches or sweets offered in singing voices. Above all, no kids kicking balls or sand in my face. I held a book and was intent on doing some serious reading.

But then I spotted a small shape emerging from the water. As it landed, I noticed it was flapping its wings feebly. Everything about the little fellow, from the slowness of its movements to its obvious weakness and vulnerability, told me it was not there by choice.

A penguin? On Ipanema Beach? The creature was just a few feet away from me and moving in my direction. For a moment, I had the illusion it was staring back at me. Yes, a penguin. I looked behind me in search of witnesses, sensing that an event of this sort merited a wider audience.

A jogger soon appeared, followed by another. They stopped at my side, amazed, and for a few seconds we remained in silence. The penguin produced a delicate wheezing sound. The first jogger looked at the sea and said, “Poor fellow, so far away from home.” The other guy laughed at this. Our philosopher took offense and, for a while, silence set in again.

The penguin fell to its side. It had swum 2,000 miles, its normal pursuit of anchovies possibly confused by shifting ocean currents and temperatures. It would not survive on the hot sand.

The joggers turned to me, as if waiting for instructions. Then one of them muttered: “I live nearby. I can call for help.”

When the firemen arrived, I felt relieved that the episode would soon be over. To my surprise, however, parting was somewhat painful. The discomfort came from a perception that something out of the ordinary, as yet difficult to grasp, had happened on that beach. “You can come visit it in the zoo,” one of the firemen joked as he noticed my sullen air. That frail, helpless, displaced being had made me suddenly understand our impact on the planet.

This happened some time ago, and it turned out to be only the beginning of an unprecedented penguin migration to Brazil. In the years that followed, dozens and then hundreds of gray-and-white Magellanic penguins appeared on our coasts, coming all the way from Patagonia and the Straits of Magellan. They landed on our sands, exhausted and starving, and were immediately surrounded by children and bikini-clad women. Subjects of curiosity and affection, they often died at the hands of those who tried to help by putting them in refrigerators or walking them on leashes.

But this troubling story doesn’t end there: some of these penguins have since been shipped or even flown back to colder waters further south. And, as I wonder how they feel about this journey, I keep hoping that their plight will help us understand ours

Edgard Telles Ribeiro, the author of I Would Have Loved Him if I Had Not Killed Him.