Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Uncooperative Orcas

Amazingly, I did actually wake up in time for the trip, and managed to bolt down a minimal breakfast and make my sandwiches for lunch before the bus turned up. Sarah, Patxi and Vincent were also taking the trip, so there were a few familiar faces, and the guide, a loquacious local named Hugo, turned out to be both well-practiced in English and well-knowledgable in his field, which is always a good combination. Our tour took us out onto the Peninsula, via the usual stop at a Ranger station for the park and a brief visit to the Information Centre, which had a viewpoint to look out around the neck of the peninsula, displays on the flora and fauna (including the skeleton of a Southern Right Whale) and, as Hugo proudly advised us, "probably the best toilets in South America". After this, we headed on to Puerto PirĂ¡mides, the only settlement in the park, from where Sarah was heading off on a boat trip to look for seals, dolphins and the like, and do a bit of snorkelling. The rest of us had a couple of hours at leisure to explore the village and the surrounding area and grab some lunch. I have to admit to a bit of geekery in that I was fascinated by the way that, due to the very shallow bay and low gradient of the seabed, the boats that were to be launched were towed or pushed down into the water and back out again on trailers by tractors of various sizes. I don't think I've ever taken that many pictures of tractors in my life.

Once Emma returned and we had all consumed our various sandwiches, empanadas or other lunches, it was back on the minibus and on to the east side of the peninsula and the Caleta Valdes, an inlet sheltered from the ocean by sandbanks where Magellanic Penguins nest. Many of the previous year's juveniles were ashore and moulting to get their new plumage - until the whole lot's been replaced and the oils that make it water-resistant and help form insulation have been secreted, they can't really swim or hunt, so there's a lot of them standing near-enough stock-still on the shore of the inlet, which at least makes photography a bit easier. After this, we went on to Punta Cantor, where there is the only mainland Elephant Seal colony in the world. What this means in real world terms is larger than usual, fatter than usual seals, with the adult males having a kind of trunk effect on the snout which gives them their name. Unfortunately, there were no adult males ashore when we got there, though the juveniles were still pretty massive. The adult males are pretty spectacular in their abilities though, as they're apparently about 4.5 tonnes, roughly the size of a minivan, can operate offshore about 500 miles from shore for months at a time, and can dive to 1,500m deep when hunting.

After this, we headed up north along the east coast of the peninsula, to the imaginatively-named Punta Norte, where there is a large sea-lion colony. Partly as a result of this, it is one of only 2 places in the world where Orcas (Killer Whales) have developed the tactic of intentionally stranding themselves temporarily on the beach, sliding in right up beyond the shoreline to munch down on some of the tasty snacks living there and then slithering and eventually swimming back in. Unfortunately, as there's only a select group of the creatures that do it, you don't generally get to see it. You don't even always get to see the Orcas themselves, even in the right season, and unfortunately that's the situation we found that day. Slightly gutting, as they were the thing I wanted to see the most, but as they say, if you want guaranteed sightings go to a zoo or a wildlife park; these are wild animals. My longed-for sighting not having appeared, I dozed much of the way back into town, and went out that evening for a dinner at the Cantina El Nautico, which was a nice fish called pejerrey. Many people still feeling the effects of the previous night's asado, it was pretty quiet at the hostel, so I got one of my occasional early nights.