15 October 2007

Peninsula Valdez

This won´t be a long post, but I just have to write something about today´s fantastic trip.

I chose an early start tour to be sure that I would have maximum time amongst the wildlife. There are several possible routes, but most of them start with a dash from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Piramides for the whale watching.

You don´t actually need a boat. You can see the whales quite well from the shore. Even in Puerto Madryn you can see them cruising up and down off the beach, just a few hundred metres from the shore. At first glance they look like rocks awash, but rocks seldom move across the bay. There is no question, though, that admiring them is so much better from a boat.

Southern right whales congregate in the area to give birth to their 4,000 kg calves and to get the next generation started. They were called right whales by the early whalers because they were the right whale to hunt. They swim slowly and they float when they are dead, making them easy to catch.

Before we got near the whales the boat rules were explained. If the whale is to the right, all the people on the right stay seated and those to the left may stand. And vice versa. Seemed simple and sensible enough.

Only one tourist boat per whale is the limit, so we had to go out a ways to find an unattended whale. In fact it was a mother and her 2-month old calf. Everyone in the boat immediately stood up to get a better view. At least I was on the side permitted to do so. Mostly the whales just dipped below the surface, letting out noisy exhalations from time to time. But the mother did dive now and then, giving the classic tail wave as she did so.

The small, modest-priced digital camera I have with me is usually OK, but it´s not very prompt to reply to the shutter button. I now have lots of snaps of whales just disappearing below the surface.

After one dive the mother surfaced well away from our boat and we were treated to two ´jumps´. Fantastic.

Finally our skipper gave them a rest and moved over to another awash rock. This turned out to be three whales, one of which seemed to be a calf. One of these animals seemed to stand on its head. Certainly it waved its tail in the air many times for us. And another rolled on its side and cruised around playfully slapping the surface of the sea. I think that we witnessed just about the full set of surface behaviours, and all in brilliant sunshine with hardly any wind and a calm sea. Perfect.

Along the road we saw guanacos, the one member of the llama family that lives away from the mountains, and rheas (tick), which look very similar to their Australian relative, the emu. There were also lots of maras. These are a large rodent that burrows in the dry soil.

The next stop was to admire a colony of elephant seals. To simulate the excitement of an elephant seal family get some water ballooons: 10 or a dozen huge size in black or grey to represent pups, 12 to 14 enormous ones in brown and grey for the females and one humungous brown balloon for the bull. Two-thirds fill them with water. Place the humungous balloon on the beach any which way near the water. Place the others in a bunch all oriented up and down the beach. It doesn´t matter whether it is head or tail towards the water. Sit and watch.

I exaggerate of course, but there was not much action. The males displayed evidence of recent battles and an occasional flipper scooped some beach gravel over the sunbather´s body. Three were actually in the water. A couple of the pups bleated loudly. Their fond mothers were either at sea or too deeply asleep to respond.

There were birds around, including giant petrels (tick), a kind of chocolate-coloured albatross. But the most striking bird was in the scrub at the top of the cliff. The cock long-tailed meadowlark has red all down his chin and front and bold white stripes on his head. The scarlet marking is irregular, as though he´s been hit with cartoon tomatoes. HUGE TICK. The female was much less gaudy.

A little way North there is a small colony of magellanic penguins. You can get so close you could almost pat them. But I won´t get too excited about them because tomorrow I am off to Punta Tombo where there is a colony of 400,000 penguins.

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