Patagonia: A Whale (and a penguin and a seal) of a Time!

Seals and sealions basking in the sun

We caught the overnight bus down to Puerto Madryn from Buenos Aires – ultimate luxury in “cama suite” seats.  There were just six seats in our class, and we filled four of them; the last two were porteños going down to their holiday house. I spent some of the 19 hour bus ride practicing my Spanish with them. We spoke about the town (sleepy, quiet, perfect) and what we should eat (picadas marinas – a tapas style seafood meal) and what we should see (whales, penguins and seals).

Puerto Madryn is an excellent base from which to visit the trinity of Punta Tombo (penguins), Peninsula Valdes (seals) and Puerto Pyramides (whales). We rented a self-contained apartment near the beach, a short walk from the main shops. The apartment, called Playa del Gales was spacious, with a laundrette, a well-equipped kitchen, a living area and comfortable rooms. For the price (USD90 per night, rates valid as at December 2010), and shared amongst four (though the apartment can fit up to six), the place was a bargain! The owner lived just 100m down the road, and her first comment, when we met her was “but you are all so young!” which put her in our good books immediately.

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The anatomy of a splash – a southern right whale shows us how it’s done.

Our first stop was Peninsula Valdes and Puerto Pyramides, to see the southern right whales on their annual migration route. The season runs from June to December, and there are plenty of tours to choose from. Tours run for a few hours and on most days, sightings are guaranteed. The southern right whale has no dorsal fin, and are distinguished by their calloused skins – a fungus that is transmitted to newborns at birth and form a kind of fingerprint used to identify individuals.

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Patagonia Sealion
Southern fur seal

Back on land at Peninsula Valdes, we take a short walk along a deserted beach to a viewing area, where, down on the sands below, seals and sealions bask, somnolent in the sun.

Next – a visit to Punta Tombo to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. At the end of summer, the chicks are almost full grown, but the parents are still hanging around worriedly, keeping an eye on them. The penguins make nests in burrows or under bushes – they mate for life. The Magellanic penguin is an endangered species, but at least in Punta Tombo, their nests are protected and safe.

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Penguins in their burrow
Penguin eyeballs us
Coming up for a blow

Unfortunately the season wasn’t right for orca-spotting – the killer whales at Punta Norte on Peninsula Valdes, unique to all other populations found around the world, are the only ones that intentionally strand themselves to capture sealions and seals. This hunting technique has been documented nowhere else. The orcas hunt baby seals and sealions between February and April – so it looks like I’ll just have to return to Argentina (again!) at some point.

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  1. Sugel says:

    Touring the whole of the Peninsula implies driving 400 Km of gravel roads. The highlights in this route are: – Punta Piramide’s South American Sea Lion Colony: From December to March it is their reproduction season. – Punta Pardelas: Ideal for fishing, snorkeling and scuba-diving, it is a beach located some 12 Km. away from Puerto Pirámides and can be reached trekking along the cliffs. – Punta Norte: It shelters the only Elephant Seals colony in the world on continental lands. – Caleta Valdes: It is a particular geographical accident where, in different seasons, elephant seals and sea wolves live. – Punta Delgada: It is at the tip of the Peninsula. There is an old lighthouse that has been reconverted into a hotel.

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