Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Peninsula Valdez, Argentina

Settled in 1865 by Welsh colonists looking for a better life, Puerto Madryn is 1,300 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, and clings to a crescent-shaped sandy bay with an aluminium plant at one end, the 6 storey Patagonian skyscrapers of downtown in the middle and a half-finished hotel at the other. In January and February, it is crammed with porteños (residents of Buenos Aires). For the rest of the year, it gets ready for January and February. We arrived after another 20 hour bus journey, this time through endless plains of dried grass and scrub, and went straight for a swim in the sea. It was like a baptism after 3 months without a glimpse of the ocean and afterwards, we warmed ourselves with hot chocolates at a beach front café.

North of Puerto Madryn lies Peninsula Valdez, one of the premier marine mammal national parks in the world, and the next day we took the 300 kilometre tour. The Peninsula looks like a drawing pin stuck into the mainland and, nestled in the narrow isthmus, is the sleepy, one hotel town of Puerto Pyramides where we boarded a boat and motored east to search for Southern Right Whales, so called because they float when dead and have vast quantities of oil, thereby making them the ´right´ whale to hunt. The shallow warm waters of the gulf are perfect birthing grounds and we were visiting at the end of the season as the whales were starting to leave with their calves.

We were lucky and quickly found a small group. The engine was cut and we drifted closer and closer. The whales were huge, dark curved arches looking like smooth obsidian or planed tree trunks. They had barnacled heads, the white colonies of bivalves marking each animal like a fingerprint, and the calves floated alongside their mothers, occasionally raising flippers out of the water or rolling their bodies on to their mothers´ expanse. Weighing 3 tons at birth, the calves had gained 7 tons in weight feeding on almost pure fat whale milk. We watched half a dozen whales in the 45 minutes that we circled and it was one of the best experiences – the boat headed back to port with both of us wanting more.

After the boat tour, we drove to the end of the Peninsula catching glimpses from the minibus of leggy rheas, the South American equivalent of the ostrich, where the male will care alone for up to 100 chicks, and guanacos (the Patagonian version of the llama). We almost skidding off the road to an untimely death as the driver narrowly avoided running over a speeding armadillo, which looked like it was remote-controlled as it bounced across the dirt road. On the east coast, we watched elephant seal calves and juveniles practice breath-holding and fighting. The adults had unfortunately left some time before and we could only imagine the 3 ton males fighting for harems of 150 females.

A short stop at a small penguin colony, where the waiter-like birds nested in holes in the ground, and we headed back to Puerto Madryn. Day 1 done, but we were not finished with the wildlife.

The next day, we rented bikes and rode a 17 kilometre sand and dirt track to Punta Loma, a seal lion colony. The viewpoint was 15 metres above a neat amphitheatre of white rock, replete with nesting cormorants, and, lying on the edge of the dark shingle and green water, lay hundreds of russet brown torpedos. The females, pregnant and due to birth in a month´s time, were unmoving until a lesser male encroached too far and, in an explosion of blubber and muscle, the huge black male, owner of the harem, charged, immune to the cries of the females who panicked to get out of his way. We ate sandwiches in the wind, watching another life go on below, before riding back towards town.

The clouds, which had threatened all day, lifted and in a warm evening sun, we found a deserted beach and swam with only a flock of flamingos for company.


Blogger Ian Sealy said...

Did you go through Viedma on your way to Puerto Madryn? If so, what's it like?

5:05 AM  

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