The killer whales

Trip Start Sep 22, 2007
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Trip End Nov 10, 2007


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Flag of Argentina  ,
Monday, October 22, 2007

Puerto Madryn is one of a group of Patagonian towns settled by the Welsh 140 years ago. Its also an access town to get into Peninsula Valdes, a marine wildlife hotspot where we hope to see some whales and elephant seals.

On the map, Peninsula Valdes is shaped a bit like an embryo attached to the mother-continent of South America. This coastal disruption creates huge sheltered bays where the southern right whales come to give birth and raise their young.

The town itself is a dusty grid of streets that doesn't really inspire much affection. The largest aluminum smelter in Argentina is also sited here, enhancing the town's overall charm factor hugely.

The landscape around here is one of endless flat dry plains covered in tough grasses and low vegetation which terminates abruptly at the seathing blue atlantic coastline. Offshore winds which lose all their moisture in the Andes blow constantly and cover everything in a layer of dust.

Despite the arid nature of the land, the settlers worked out that Merino sheep from Australia could tolerate the dry climate and could drink salty water pumped out of the ground by windmills. This ultimately led to a big sheep raising community in this part of Patagonia. Certainly it was too dry to grow crops around Puerto Madryn, and most of the Welsh moved off to the Chubut river valley, where they created irrigation channels and succesfully grew crops. Before they got all this in place there were some very lean times, and the local Teluheuche Indians helped the early settlers to survive.

We pass our first morning In Puerto Madryn sorting out a place to stay (Residencial J'Os) and working out how to cover the vast distances on the peninsula without having to hire a car. In the end we opt for a one-day tour with which promises to take us to all the wildlife hot spots in one action-packed day. In the afternoon we visit the Eco-centre at the edge of town where there is a dark room with pebbles on the the floor and whale sounds piped out through 7 huge speakers. Its one of those moments in life where I feel incredibly insignificant.

The tour turns out to be reasonable, but I can´t help but feel that sightseeing a-la-group dulls the experience perceptibly. Our guide Marcia does a great job of preventing me from feeling depressed about the whole experience with her continual banter and charm.

We get on a whale sightseeing boat at Puerto Pyramides and chase a mother and calf around the bay for an hour or so. The boat is rather too small for the number of people on it and theres a lot of jostling for position  to take photos. If you ever come here, I recommend making your own way to Pyramides and find a small boat or hire a kayak. Despite this, seeing a Southern Right and the bay at such close quarters is mind-boggling.

We travel further on the long dusty road to Punta Cantor, where longshore drift has created a large-scale antipodean Chesil Beach. From the bus I see the froth of whale spouts entering the channel adjacent to the narrow isthmus. We park up and find out that the spume is from a pack of Orcas (or killer whales). It seems that there are 9 or 10 of them. One of the dorsal fins is about 2.5m long. The Orcas move like a pack of murderous wolves through the channel surfacing regularly with confident blasts. They look like they own this plot. Pity help any seal pups nearby.

Walking further south from the car park there is a steep pebble beach with the only continental colony of elephant seals. This species exhibits strongest sexual dimorphism of any mammal. The females are about 800kg and less than 2 metres long whilst the dominant males are 5000kg and 5m long. These males are absolutely colossal and have a huge blubbery protuperances on their noses (hence the name elephant seal).

We watch closely the females and newborn pups coming and going. A rival male gets a bit to close to the harem. The dominant male rises up on his flippers and barks a deep roar from his blood stained mouth. He is god here. The other male shuffles off quickly. This is a place where you could spend days watching the live show.

But we´re on a tour and its time to go after an hour.
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