Right Whales, Wrong Seals

Trip Start Apr 17, 2001
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117
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Valdez Peninsula on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia is desert. It's an area where sea creatures congregate, both to mate and birth their young. And to feed.. For seals, it seems like an odd choice of a place to do any of these things. They've put themselves in a double 'S' Catch 22 situation. If they crawl too far from the shore they find themselves stranded in the hot desert. If they stay too close to shore they risk becoming orca dessert.

Penguins scramble maddly to shore, then waddle awkwardly from one foot to the other as they watch the sea, where a lone prowling sea lion lurks; similar to how humans would react when the lifeguard blows the shark alert whistle. They watch with bated breath as the sea lion circles once, then twice, never taking their eyes off him. Finally the bird hungry predator swims off, and with noises that sound like cheers the penguins dive back into the sea.

Right whales spend the summer months here as well. Even though everyone we'd spoken to had seen them, both Ellen and I secretly knew that when we went looking for them they'd be somewhere else. It just works that way, whether it's tigers, whale sharks, or sloths.

I was standing at the side of the boat with fifty or so others, hoping the Captain would take us back to shore. The wind off the Gulf of Nuevo was whistling; I was cold and as usual not dressed for it. I was staring blankly at the waves, shivering slightly when I heard a noise that sounded like an overactive sump pump. Then a fine mist blew across the side of my face. I turned, and damned if it didn't look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Just its head stuck out of the water. But what a head. About the size of a Cooper Mini, its nose and both sides of its face were covered with barnacles. It went down again, then came up and sprayed me again from its blowhole. Its body was on top of the water now too. It went down a third time. This time its tail flipped high above the surface as it dove.

"That tail can't belong to the head that just went under," I said to Ellen, "it's too far back."

Ellen didn't respond. She was mesmerized. The gods of all the animals we'd never seen before were finally paying us our due. 

When it came up the fourth time it was right beside our boat. But this time it was a double header. There were two of them, only meters from where we were standing, both covered in almost identical barnacles.

Back on shore I was like the kid who'd just gotten all the toys he wanted for Christmas. Before we went out on the boat I'd barely listened to the tour guide, telling us all about Right whales. Who cared, we wouldn't see any. Now I couldn't learn enough about them. The damned things grow fourteen to eighteen meters long and weigh up to one-hundred tonnes. The tail did belong to the head that I'd seen go into the dive. That's like sixty feet of sea creature. And the barnacled heads that the guide told us about, that was part of their genetic makeup. She said their young are  born with barnacles on their faces too. This sounded too much like fish story for me, so I investigated further on the Internet. Most of what she'd told us was true, but not the baracles. Scientists initially thought that the odd head markings were pigmentation. They've since discovered that it's lice. Whale lice, billions, trillions, maybe more. I also found out that each testicle on a Right whale weighs upwards of five-hundred kilograms. That's one thousand, one-hundred pounds in a single nut. 
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