Valdes Peninsula: Southern Right Whales, Elephant Seals, and Ice Cream!

8 12 2011

Another day dawns clear and bright! I stroll along the Puerto Madryn waterfront for 30 minutes before breakfast, watching the comings and goings of people who live here. There aren’t many out yet, but some are jogging, others on bicycles, and some taking in the fresh air along the beach. It’s a significant bay, you can’t see the other side from the beach. It’s going to be a big day starting with Southern Right Whales!

Our breakfast at the Hotel Costenara is a source of displeasure for many (follow the link and you can see the breakfast for real). There are no eggs, no hot cereal. It’s just dry bread, croissants, some cold cereal, some orange “cool aid,” and bitter coffee. The “fruit” is canned. For those of us who love breakfast, this is a hard time of day.

Off to see wildlife! On the way, we catch sight of guanacos! I’ve never seen them in person. We see lots and lots of guanacos! They live in herds of up to two dozen.

I’m looking forward to seeing marine mammals!  The Valdes Peninsula is such a treasure trove of marine species that its preservation has global significance. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its importance, particularly for the endangered Southern Right Whales that rear their young there.

By 9:00 we arrive at Puerto Piramides, a hamlet which is ground zero for whale watching.  While we wait for things to get going, I watch a 60-ft sailboat lying at anchor offshore. And wow! Whales are right in front of the boat, clearly visible, spy-hopping and I even sight a breach! I see another several hundred yards from the first. The whale watching boat makes us wear these ridiculous PFDs that I will not show on the internet! I doubt they would do any good in the water – they’ll just float right off my body, instead of holding me up! We’re dressed for potential cold spray and wind, but it’s going to be a warm, still, beautiful morning. Perfect!

Once out on the water, it isn’t long before we catch sight of a southern right whale and its calf! I’m delighted there are quite a few whales within view! We have two pairs, two mother whales going along and calves following. Other times, mom rolls over on her back allowing calf to suckle.

Then the breaching begins, and cameras whir! What magnificent creatures!

Photo Monique Poesiat

They don’t move off because of us, and I’m thinking they are just accustomed to the boats, and know that the boats are not a threat.

Then a full breach! Lots of ooohs and ahhs!

The mother whales engage in tail-slapping and fin-slapping. This behavior is thought to be some kind of communication.

Photo Monique Poesiat

The “show” did not disappoint! I think this goes on all day long. The cows and calves use the bay as a rearing area. It’s plenty big, and protected from the ocean.

See that the fins on the Southern Right whale are more squared off than on Humpbacks, which are very elongated!

About lunch time, we returned to Puerto Piramides. Saskia suggested we get lunch at one of the restaurants, because it’s going to be a long time before the next opportunity to eat. So we went ahead.

The menu had many options. Since I was already beginning to feel what would become the “Patagonia blahs,” meaning not having enough fresh fruit/veggies, I instinctively ordered a giant “Insalata Complete,” or complete mixed salad.

That was a good idea. Here is what some of the others got…those who ordered pizza had to wait a long time. And we were to discover those green olives they put on pizza in Argentina? Well, it’s what they do…

Then it was on to see elephant seals. We went to the north side of the peninsula. Out there, there are cliffs, affording these marine mammals protection from land predators.

He has quite the nose!

We make it to some southern elephant seal colonies. Elephant seals are the largest seals in the world. Bulls can weigh over 6,000 lbs. They can dive to 7,000 ft, though an average dive takes them to 2,000 ft. Like all the marine mammals, elephant seals have a seasonal routine. They spend months at sea. Then they come to land, to “haul out,” mate and rear their young. Male elephant seals get to the beach and establish a “harem” of females and defend it to the death. A bull absolutely will not allow another male into its harem. Other males, desperate, will push the boundaries, try to mate with females, and if the dominant male catches them, it’s a fight!

Elephant seals spend a lot of time lying around when on land. When they move, they look like loose-skinned inch worms. I can’t imagine the amount of blubber they carry!

They seem to spend a lot of time resting. We see both males and females, and their young.

A youngster in the "pool" behind the beach

So, the cows come ashore. They give birth. The young are left behind on their own to figure out swimming on their own. Some of the young use quiet backwaters behind the beach to learn to swim. But for all of them, they have to go to sea eventually, to forage the seasonal feeding with the other seals.

This is the world famous place where Orcas have learned to swim close to the beach to catch baby seals trying to learn to swim at sea!

The job of the bull seals is to make sure every female in his harem is pregnant before they go out to sea for seasonal feeding. The bulls stay on the beach waiting for every female to come in to heat so they can mate with them before all head to sea.

I was able to catch an bull defending against what was probably an upstart adolescent bull. Much smaller, at first I thought it was a female! (Click to see)


We also saw sea lions up close, here was this bull, who didn’t have a care in the world about us!

As we drove back to town, the show continued. All along the road, we saw numerous guanacos, and even this little hairy armadillo.

Then something totally unexpected!

We catch a glimpse of something ostrich-like!

Well, we’re not in the Galapagos, but I guess we might as well be!

This bird is a Lesser Rhea, but it is also known as Darwin’s Rhea!

It was so completely unexpected, it totally made my day!

Lesser Rhea or Darwin's Rhea

These birds are native to this part of Patagonia and are also found as far away as Chile. They are not as big as Ostriches. It really made me think about how these similar birds like Emus can evolve in distant lands!

That evening we ventured out for a taste of an Argentine treat!

Argentinian’s are serious about ice cream! Called helado, it is not just a dessert. It is a ritual! The tradition likely has its roots in Italian immigrants. It’s wonderfully airy and smooth and comes in limitless varieties. Here is a video on the details:

All about ice cream in Argentina and Buenos Aires!

Tomorrow, it will be time to start our transcontinental journey. By the end of the day we will be in the Andes!



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