17 October 2007

Punta Tombo

The same tour company as the previous day´s visit to Peninsula Valdez and the same early pick up time of 7:30. And surprise, it was the same guide, Mauricio, and driver, Carlos.

Punta Tombo is a 2-hour drive South from Puerto Madryn. To break the journey, and squeeze some more pesos out of the gringos, there is a break at Rawson where we can take an optional boat ride to see dolphins. This depends on the conditons, and there is a strong wind blowing.

Luckily the skipper thought he could get us all back safely, so we queued to don life jackets. Then we took them off so that we could pull a waterproof cape over our clothes. Re-secure the life jacket. The boat is smaller then the one from which I watched whales, but much faster. Not as fast as a dolphin though. Before we embarked we were warned that we were going to see the dolphins. They are very difficult to photograph, especially with the delay in digital cameras between pressing the button and recording the picture.

Right in the port a sea lion surfaced and peered about. Then, before anyone could unzip a camera case, it dived again and disappeared.

From the port we dropped downriver and on shingle bank were many roosting birds. I must come back and observe them through my binoculars. Out into the Gulf and open the throttle. There was another tourist boat already at sea and our skipper headed towards it. That must be where the dolphins are. After all the concern about conditions, the wind was only moderate and neither waves nor spray were a problem.

And there they were. Commerson´s dolphin is very small for a dolphin, only 1.4m, with racy black and white markings. They come and go at high speed, occasionally slowing to keep time with the boats or diving underneath. Frequently one will jump, apparently simply for the joy of it. Sometimes two jump in unison.

The boats mainly stooged around and let the dolphins come and watch the humans, but at one stage they went at full power on parallel courses. Where the wakes met there was a big wave and didn´t the dolphins love that! They surfed along the pressure lines three or four at a time.

Like everyone else I tried my hand at dolphin photography. 2 or 3 were OK and 2 or 3 showed empty sea. The latter have been deleted.

I think we had about an hour amongst the dolphins before our time was up. I don´t think I will ever tire of watching dolphins.

On the way back to port we spotted a whale. Big oohs from all those who had not yet done the whale watching trip and the cameras swung into action again.

Back ashore I grabbed my binoculars and had enough time to identify a new oystercatcher (tick) and be frustrated that I could not get a good enough look at some snoozing ducks.

During the drive to Punta Tombo I made the acquaintance of a family from New York. They had taken the opportunity offered by the mother´s work trip to Buenos Aires to take their boys out of school and have a few days in Argentina.

Our destination is the largest mainland colony of magellanic penguins. About 200,000 nests. At the end of the breeding season, when the chicks have not yet fledged and the adolescents come ashore to moult, Mauricio reckons there are 900,000 birds in the colony.

I saw a small percentage of them. I would have seen more if there was less wind-borne dust. The wind did not seem any stronger, but it was gusty and had the malicious intention of hurling grit into my eyes. This detracted greatly from the enjoyment of penguin watching. Eventually I had to return to the bus and switch from contact lenses to spectacles. That was half an hour wasted - almost one third of our allotted time.

The penguins seem quite unconcerned by the humans and many nest right up close to the path. I should perhaps point out that a penguin´s idea of a nest is usually just a salad-bowl size scrape under a bush. Or if there is no bush a scrape with an overhang. I think calling it a burrow is unjustifiable flattery. Anyway, there was no shortage of subjects and photography here was extremely simple. I even got a picture of a bird with its egg.

A few birds, with even less IQ than your average penguin, nest right in the public area.

Most nests had one bird present, presumably incubating. It is early in the season and not all the eggs (there are usually two) have been laid yet. The chicks will not hatch until next month. Some scrapes had two penguins flopped on their tummies. Some were asleep and didn´t even twitch as human feet scrunched on the gravel only a metre away.

Some of the nesters were waddling to or from the beach. Humans have to give way to any penguin wanting to cross the track, although the main penguin highways were bridged so they could always pass underneath. There was a large group on the beach, presumably urging each other to be the first one to test the temperature of the water.

I wasn´t exactly on time for the 3 o´clock return, but I wasn´t the last one to board the minibus. Mr & Mrs USA were busy buying rather nice cuddly toy penguins for their boys.

The return trip was also broken half way, this time in Gaiman, a small town establishged by settlers from Wales. They make a big deal of serving Welsh teas. I guess it makes as much sense as Devonshire teas in Puhoi. Two of the tea houses make much of the fact that they were the first to offer this treat in 1944. Unless they opened on the same day I cannot see how this can be true. I can report that the tea was good and the accompanying plates of edibles were very generous. The jam was excellent.

A lot of the early settlers in this area were Welsh or English. Mauricio explained that the Spanish arrived first but didn´t like Patagonia so they went away again. This explains many of the place names. Rawson is English and Madryn, Trelew and Gaiman are Welsh. Streets are named after local notables with surnames like Lewis, Roberts, Davies, Humphreys and Evans.

Carlos kindly dropped me at the bus terminal so that I could organise my next journey. There are no buses direct to El Calafate, so I have booked to Rio Gallegos for Wednesday and will have to find an onward bus when I get there on Thursday morning.

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