In search of orcas

Trip Start Sep 28, 2007
Trip End Jun 25, 2008

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Thursday, February 21, 2008

Peninsula Valdes

Rather than take the expensive ferry up from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt in Chile, we decided to cross back into Argentina to go to Península Valdés on the east coast and cross back into Chile higher up.

Península Valdés is a barren piece of land thats popularity comes from its abundant marine life. Southern Right Whales pass every year from June to December (we were too late for that) and there are sizable colonies of elephant seals, sea lions and Magellanic penguins. The real draw-card for us was the chance of seeing orcas coming in close to shore to snatch baby penguins and seal pups off the beach at high tide.

It is an isolated area, so to explore it you need a car or to take a tour. We opted to hire a car for a couple of days. The name of the company where we hired a car from was called Wild Skies. At first I thought this was a pretentious name, but from the first sunset as we drove from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Pirámides it became clear that it is an apt name for a company in the area. That night fluffy clouds were all outlined in neon pink and the sky was a gorgeous mauve. The sun became  a massive orange glowing orb as it descended to the horizon.

The sky was amazing at lots of other times and even the moon rising and setting was amazing, it also became a huge orange orb.

Puerto Pirámides is the only settlement on the peninsula, situated behind a wide, flat black sand beach. The municipal campground was enormous and packed.

In search of orcas and misinformed about the time of high tide, we left before sunrise to drive the 81km on gravel to get to Punta Norte where the orcas are known to take sea lion pups off the beach from February to April.

It was a very isolated  spot. When we got there, the edge of the sky was still pink from sunrise and the sea lions were awake and baa-ing like sheep.

The pups were dark brown, where as the mothers were a tan colour. The males reminded me of howler monkeys as they had a mantle of fur around the back of their neck. I guess that is why they were called sea lions in the first place.

The pups were learning how to swim and playing in the waves. We have spent so much time watching fur seals and their pups in New Zealand (which we think are actually sea lions) that we were not as enchanted as we should have been, and kept scanning the horizon for dark shapes that could be orca fins.

There is a orca research station there and they had an identification chart of the local orcas showing profile shots of their dorsal fins and white belly markings, with names like Jessica and other benign names for the ultimate predators of the sea.

We were dismayed to see on the white-board that the last orca sighting was three weeks earlier and the two were 800m offshore.

We had been told that while they do show up in February, March is a better bet as the pups are a more worthy snack by then. Still it was Feb 19.

We were so distracted looking out to sea, we almost didn't notice the sweetest armadillo that was taking an interest in our bread and jam breakfast. He was so cute with strong looking claws and a body like armour that has sparse long hairs growing out of it. 

Waiting till two hours after the actual high tide, we eventually gave up. The amazing photos in the cafe showed how massive orca are compared to the  sea lion pups. Pretty hard to miss if they had turned up.

Heading back to the car we spotted the armadillo again and, entertaining the car park crowd, were two young foxes, playing rough and tumble. They really are beautiful animals.

From Punta Norte we drove along the coast to Punta Cantor. Just before we got there we stopped off at a small colony of Magellanic penguins.

I don't know what it is about penguins that makes them so unbearably cute. They  were on the hillside right in front of us, squawking, holding out their wings, bending and standing still in the sun with their eyes shut as if meditating.

From there we moved on to Punta Cantor proper where the Caleta Valdés, a narrow strip of water separated from the sea by a thin peninsula, rejoins.

Here there is a colony of elephant seals. They had a stuffed one on display at the  Puerto Madryn bus station, and I was blown away by the size (males can grow to 5 metres and 4000kg). Only mums and pups were at the colony but they were much bigger than the sea lions and much more ungainly as they can't rotate their flippers to sit up on and help them walk. Elephant seals can only shuffle (and wobble) up the beach on their bellies.

We spent the afternoon lazing there (seals and their ilk always inspire me to imitate them) and got back to Puerto Pirámídes in time for another amazing sunset.

The next day we got up early again and headed south to Trelew and onwards to Punta Tombo, another hour and a half south. Punta Tombo is the largest penguin breeding colony outside Antarctica.

It also felt very isolated but there were loads of tour buses parked there.

It really was an amazing sight. The penguins have burrows on the grassland, stretching further than the eye can see. Lots of them stand outside, sunning themselves or lie flopped on their bellies under the shrubs napping.That is, when they are not going or returning from their pilgrimage to the sea, waddling along alone or in groups.

You can walk around amongst them, and they are not bothered. One man lost his hat to a wind gust and it landed on a sleeping penguin. It barely opened an eye as he retrieved it.

They have attractive grey-black and white markings with red eyebrows. Their feathers, particularly the ones on their back look very like fish scales.

There were loads of chicks there and they are massive brown and white fluff balls until they start losing their feathers. In the intermediate stage some of them look like they are wearing fur coats. Once all the down is gone they are a slim white and grey.

The site has a great spot where you can sit up on a steep peninsula and watch the thousands of penguins lining the sea front, mostly chicks. They are like small children, running into the waves and out again. One kept biting at the waves, which made me laugh as that is what my parent's Border collie Max did when we tried to get him to swim at the beach. 

The older ones are much better swimmers and duck under the waves, shaking their heads and tail humps when they pop out again like pro surfies. Lots of them were sitting around on the water like ducks, but we could see  some of them scooting under the water flapping their wings like flippers and we even saw some leaping out of the water.

The other bizarre thing about the site is guanaco graze there. So you see distant fields with penguins decorating them like a repeating pattern and then the beautifully fine-boned guanacos graze around them. It really is a surreal sight.

I could have watched them all afternoon but I wanted us to get to the Welsh village of Gaiman in time for afternoon tea that Lady Diana herself recommended.

There are a few Welsh settlements in southern Argentina.

 When we finally got to Gaiman, we didn't look around its wide streets or cottages much, but went to one of the tea houses recommended to us.

No one else was there, which is normally a warning to me, but I figured it was because it was so late.
It looked like a museum inside with all manner of knick knacks, lace, dark wood furniture, animal skins on the wall (including a puma) and the huge teapot arrived with the most homely brown tea cosy I have ever seen.

While the lady who told us she had made everything seemed very nice, we were disappointed. The jam for the bread tasted somewhat like marmalade, there were no scones or cream, the vast array of cake slices were stale, the bread was over buttered, the cheese flavourless and the tea weak (though the cosy worked a treat) and at NZ$15 each it was very expensive for Argentina.

We asked for another plate of cakes in the hope that she would have to cut into fresh ones, but no luck. Still, we quite enjoyed ourselves and didn't think we would need to eat for a week.



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