An arid coast bursting with marine life

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
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Trip End Apr 05, 2006


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Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, November 19, 2005

After a couple of days in the Andean wilderness of PN Lanin, we decided to head eastwards to escape the spell of rainy weather. On Thursday 17 November at noon, we tackled the 1200km to Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic Coast. We were quite astonished at how the landscape changed within a couple of hundred kilometres eastwards - the forest-clad mountains gave way to the arid, flat plains that are typical of most of Argentinian Patagonia.

The drive was very long (similar to a Cape Town to JHB stint) and the landscape pretty boring; we passed through a series of featureless towns that seemed to have more traffic lights than people! Driver Rich held up well, and Andrea and I chatted, dozed and listened to music. We finally arrived in Puerto Madryn at about 10.30pm and checked into a hostel.

Phew, what a drive! But the weather was dry and warm here, and the wildlife watching opportunities on nearby Peninsula Valdez sounded very good indeed. We went in search of some food and took a table in a pub-restaurant called Mr Jones; there´s a very strong Welsh connection in and around Puerto Madryn: in the mid-1800s to early 1900s, thousands of Welsh farming families settled in the area. The town itself was named after the home of the first Welsh settler, and apparently Welsh was spoken in the region until fairly recently (it is dying out with the younger generation). And of course we thought of our good friend Si Jones back in Edinburgh as we downed our beers and munched pizza!

Mid-morning on Friday we took the road out to Peninsula Valdez, about 70km away. On the face of it, the landscape looked pretty inhospitable - completely flat and arid, all dry scrub and dust. But the coast is where the life is... there are penguin, sea lion and elephant seal colonies on the rocks, and Southern Right wales in the waters.

The main hub of the Peninsula is the little seaside village of Puerto Piramides. We found it pretty and pleasant enough, and decided we´d spend the night in the campsite on the beach. A number of boat operators offer whale watching cruises: we did a quick scout around and decided to go on a cruise with Hydro Sport the next morning early, though we were warned that strong winds might prevent it from going out.

After picking up goodies for a picnic, we drove the 75km or so to Punta Norte at (you guessed it) the northern tip of the Peninsula. Along the way, we saw herds of handsome guanacos (members of the camilid family, related to llamas and resembling a cross between a kudu and a camel). The car park at Punta Norte was abuzz when we arrived: folk were snapping away at small creatures scurrying around their feet.... armadillos! They were just too cute, dashing around, sniffing and digging here and there.

Down on the beach, bodies were basking in the sun, their enormous, blubbery mass spread out for all to see. Nope, they weren´t overweight Europeans on holiday, but sea lions and elephant seals hanging out in a mixed colony. We watched them for an hour so: most lay snoozing quietly, but from time to time grunts and scuffles would break out as a big sea lion bull chased his girlfriends about.

We drove 45 km or so along the eastern shore of the peninsula to a large breeding colony of Magellanic penguins, who have made their burrows in an embankment beside the lagoon of Caleta Valdez. The viewing area is so close to the colony, one could just about touch them! We watched them for 40 minutes or so at sunset: some were waddling about, so clumsy out of water; others were huddling or lying still, and a few individuals embarked on extravant courting displays, flapping their little wings and crowing loudly, heads thrown back and beaks wide open. Awesome to watch!

At sunset we returned to Puerto Piramides, set up camp and cooked our enormous trout over the coals... it was so delicious we managed to finish the whole thing!

On Saturday morning we awoke to a strong wind; not a good sign for the whale watching trip we were booked on, but we headed down to the Hydro Sport office anyway. Our fears were confirmed when we were informed that the day´s cruises were cancelled due to the wind (the sea was looking pretty rough). So, we hopped in the car for another lap around the Peninsula... the distances are quite big and the gravel roads slow to travel on, so it was a blessing that we had planned to stay two days. This time we headed to Punta Delgada, where an elephant seal colony could be seen, but found the area shut off due to collapsing cliffs. By now the wind was howling... see photo attached!

We drove on to Caleta Valdez (quite close to where the penguin colony is located). There were loads of tour buses, and with good reason: this spot offers the best opportunity to view elephant seals up close. A network of paths down to the beach gives one some great views of the colony basking on the sand (it´s prohibited to walk on the beach among them). We stayed for quite a while, probably an hour or so, watching these enormous creatures relaxing. From time to time, a swimming seal would haul itself back onto the beach, or a lazy fellow would take to the water... how graceful and seaworthy they look in the water, but how clumsy and immobile on land!!!

We had a bite of lunch at the excellent self-service restaurant, and drove back to Puerto Piramides - we had completed the full circuit of the Peninsula, and had visited all the wildlife sites apart from a small sea lion colony just outside the village. We popped back into town in the hope that the whale watching boat might be going out (the wind was dying down), but it was still cancelled. So we headed to Punta Piramides...

...where we saw whales anyway! While watching the sealions down below on the rocks, we spotted the tell-tale puff of water from a whale blow-hole, and there they were: a Southern Right mother and calf steaming calmly through the water, their broad black backs breaking the surface from time to time. Excitedly we scanned the water and spotted another mother and calf pair, and then another.... three pairs in all, swimming quite close to the shore. Yeehaa! Who needs the boat cruise if you can watch whales from the cliffs!

By now the wind had died down considerably, and the whale watching boats took to the water to harrass our whales just as we were leaving. Andrea was booked onto a 5.30pm bus to Buenos Aires, so we needed to leave the Peninsula by 4pm to drop her off in town. Content, we journeyed back to Puerto Madryn... we´d seen it all at Peninsula Valdez! Those whales were th perfect finishing touch to a most enjoyable two days.
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