COLD-WATER WILDLIFE SAFARI
Trip Start Dec 01, 2002
24Trip End May 26, 2003
There was a heated debate going on, and I was in the middle of it.
Two collegian German girls - who were renting an Argentinian guide and his car for a tour - had scooped me up in the middle of nowhere on Argentina´s Patagonian coastal Peninsula Valdes. Like me, they'd come to see seals and penguins and guanacos. Unlike me, they didn't try snorkelling with or chasing any of these animals. Which seemed boring to me, but it made perfect sense to them, and one German got mad at me.
"I just don't think you should be snorkelling with the seals and penguins," she said. "It's not good for them to get used to people. They're wild animals!"
"I'm a wild animal," I said. I am. I'm not civilized. Have you ever seen me eat two half-gallons of ice cream in seventy-two minutes?
"No, you're not," said the German. "You're from Michigan!"
She had reason. But I wisely said, "The seals want to go snorkelling with me. They're bored. All they do is lay around all day with nothing to do. If you were laying around all day at home, with nothing to do, wouldn't you want some different-looking, strange creature to come play with you?"
"No." she said. She wasn't exactly a barrel full of monkeys.
Just before they'd picked me up, a colony of some four-hundred penguins had had the lucky luck of having their boring day broken up by a strange, different-looking Michigander. They weren't too thrilled, actually.
The penguins stood all along the shore of a far beach. A refreshingly milky-blue channel ran in front of them. I walked the quarter-mile across the channel, and came to three penguins sitting on the water. I swam alongside them. They stayed very close to me, eyeing me, as if they were on guard-duty. They looked like just about any marine bird on top of the water. A bit more penguin-y, perhaps. Their bellies were white, they had white stripes down the sides of their faces, and other than that, all was black, even their beaks.
On the beach, the penguins fled uphill if I neared the shore. They walked like sorcerors waking up from a nap. Rocking back and forth, they bent their wings downward as if they wielded magic, and their black backs and tails resembled capes.
Some more of the birds floated towards me on the water. The water was too murky here, but I did get to observe a penguin swimming underwater during a different Peninsula Valdes snorkel. It darted through the water, beak-first, quickly and with abrupt shifts in depth and direction as if it was being pulled by a fishing line.
In addition to penguins, a tour around the large peninsula took vacationers to see sea-elephants. At one look-out point, you can see obese, light-colored sea-elephants - that resemble soggy egg rolls from afar, and roar like hippoes in the water - laying around a beach.
At the last look-out point, where the Germans dropped me off, there were some more sea-lions and sea-elephants. The attraction here was that orca killer whales sometimes purposely washed themselves onto shore during high tide and tried picking off some of the seals to eat. Peninsula Valdes is the only place in the world where they do this, and you can just imagine how amazing this spectacle looks on some of the posters up around Patagonia. We didn't see any orca killer whales on this day, though.
How strange that the German girls, who got so angry at me for merely "snorkelling" with the seals, would express so much admiration for the killer whales, whose murderous desire was to DEVOUR the poor seals like Fritos! A bit unfair, don't you think?
Luckily, there had been no Germans around the day before. The day I snorkelled with the seals was a great day indeed. A day those lazy seals finally got some excitement! (that is, if being chased by terrestrial killer whales isn't excitement enough)
I made my way around a rock plateau, elevated just above the sea, to a lazy sea-lion colony. Small, adorable, black-like-tar baby sea-lions wobbled about. Sometimes, they playfully snapped at and tried catching the sea-gulls standing amongst them, which was really cute. The adult sea-lions were lighter colors.
Underneath a cliff, the seals got scared if I came at all near them on land. Some dropped themselves off the rock plateau into the water. I put on my flippers and snorkel mask and joined them. This time, they didn't run.
A purple sea-lion with a handle-bar moustache perched himself high in the water and looked at me. This freaked me out a bit, and I paddled back to land. He could grow a moustache, which already made more manly than me.
But, trusting the seals, I swam out again. Fifteen or twenty seals, my size each of them, populated the cool sea around me. I dove down, and what I saw was magical.
All about me - below, to my sides, sometimes even above - the seal bodies circled me. Some light gray with brown spots, some purple, the seals twirled their bodies in the water like mermaids. Each time I dove down, it was like a whirlpool of seals surrounding me. Rays of light - fractured by the waves into honeycomb shapes - danced on the seals in the sun-yellowed aqua sea.
Above water, some of the seals - including the intimidating fellow with the moustache - looked at me curiously. They seemed to be inviting me further out to sea. But, the snorkel ended after less than ten minutes, when a loud "BOOM!" frightened me underwater and I looked up to see a fat seal body just inches from my face. I hustled myself to shore.
The "BOOM!" was maybe a seal jumping in the water, or maybe it came from a tourist boat passing not too far away. Either way, the tourist boat watched me closely to make sure I left the site. Walking near the seals was actually prohibited, but I like to think of myself as a seal-swimming rebel, working hard to make real a dream-like world in which seals and man walk the same rock plateaus, swim together curiously, and shop side-by-side at the supermarket. I think the purple, moustachioed sea-lion cried to see me go.
In all, I spent four days exploring the Peninsula Valdes, staying in the only town there (population 300). The arid interior of the peninsula also had fun things to play with, like armadillos, snakes, foxes, sheep, and "guanaco" llamas.
At one point, I was hot on the trail of a herd of eight guanacos. Sprinting, sweating, and soaring over the prickly plants, I managed to get one of them alone in front of me. With his long, gray neck and brown, large-butted body, he looked at me, worried.
But, as you know, the great "llama-making-man-in-the-sky" makes many llamas, and you'd think he'd screw up some time and make one slow so I could catch 'em, but, you know, he never does.
Of course, I also dream of a world where guanaco and man can shop side-by-side in the supermarket. Because, then, when one of them was picking out fruit in the produce section, I could quickly GRAB 'EM, mount him, and then ride him to Brazil.
On my last day in the peninsula, I got a happy surprise when I ran into Nora, Graciela, and Iarra on the beach. My friends who drove me across the Patagonian desert. Shamefully, I had to tell them I still hadn't caught a guanaco. They reminded me that if I caught one, it would probably spit on me. They gifted me a postcard of a guanaco to ease my loss, then gave me another ride, to a city called Puerto Madryn.
In the city, I couldn't chase guanacos, so I chased another fun thing: girls. And I met Vanessa, a 17-year-old who had green-hazel eyes and who kissed like jellybeans. But not the big, fat, black jellybeans. Those are gross.
A lot of the time, though, I think guanacos are easier to catch than girls.
Stay warm and be free, "Wild Animal" Oddyseus
Thanks to Rajesh and Gloria; the Germans; and Nora, Graciela, and Iarra, again; for the lifts.
PATAGONIAN SHOOTING-STAR TALLY: 6
WISHES COME TRUE: 4 of 6
"It's a Pajamy-Jammy-Jam!" - Kid'N'Play, in some movie