The Valdez Peninsula is a large barren mass of earth that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus. On each side of the isthmus are two insulated bodies of water, San Jose Gulf and New Gulf. Due to the isolation of these gulfs many marine mammals find their security ideal for birthing and raising their young.
The primary draw to the area this time of year is the presence of the Southern Right whale. The whales are in the area giving birth to their calves and typically remain until mid-December. In addition to the whales, the peninsula is rich in life with the presence of elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, sea birds, and at times, Orcas.
After spending a few days in Puerto Madryn, I moved into a hostel onto the peninsula so I could be closer to the “action”. There is one small village, Puerto Piramides, that has campsites, hostels and a few restaurants, but otherwise, the 2,500 square miles of the peninsula is flat, treeless, and uninhabited. I traveled on the interior’s small network of dirt roads.
Whales: The wind had been increasing all day, and there was a chance that the port would close the harbor, and prohibit any more of the whaleboats from going out. We made it out, but our boat was the last one for the day. Several whales were spotted rather quickly and we never spent too much time with one whale. The captain was very respectful of the whales’ space and would cut his engines before getting too close. The whales would then, sometimes, approach us. The whale has a natural sense of curiosity, which is one of the traits that contributed, sadly, to it getting the name “Right” whale, as in “the right whale to hunt”. It was exciting to get close to the whales, but the ride was anything but smooth. By the time we returned to the beach, almost everyone on the boat was soaked.
Elephant seals: “Bunch of lazy fat kids lying out on the beach.” Because these six-month old seals will not be going out to eat on for a while, they conserve energy by not moving much –at all. Their much larger parents were currently out in deep waters feeding.
Sea Lions: Sea lions are different from seals, in that they have “arms”, rather than just flippers, and have the ability to walk on all fours while on land, and they also have external ear “flaps”. The larger male was easily spotted amongst his harem of dainty females, with his nose high the air showing off his “king of the jungle” like mane.
(Orcas were spotted the day before I arrived. They often visit the north end of the peninsula to feed on the seal lions. This corner of the peninsula is in fact a famous feeding ground for Orcas - if you have ever watched the Discovery channel, and have seen how Orcas can swim up onto the shore, temporarily beaching themselves, to grab an unsuspecting seal – this is the place where that happens. The only place in the world I was told.)
Magellan Penguins: The most common type in South America. The birds burrow holes in the hard ground to build their “nests”. Many fuzzy little grey offspring could be seen popping their heads out these holes. Also known as Jackass penguins due to their ongoing braying, which sounds very much like a donkey that has backed up into an electrical prod.
Guanacos and Rheas: The two signature land animals of Patagonia were readily present within the peninsula’s interior. Without any real predators present, there are ample chances to see these swift-footed animals, and many young ones following right behind. With the exception of the very northern parts of Argentina, you no longer see Llamas, but once you get to Patagonia, further south, you start seeing their camelid brother, the Guanaco. The first time I saw a Rhea crossing the road, completely freaked me out. I had no idea that a miniature ostrich existed and never would have expected such down here.
Being on the peninsula truly felt like you were a visitor into someone’s home. It was incredibly tranquil, in that the whole point in being there was to observe -to be a fly on a wall in a place that had no walls. Once outside of Punta Piramides, the only sounds you heard were that of the surf, the wind, and the sounds coming from the animals.
My most memorable moment was one evening about two hours before sunset (much like the photo of the bay above). The light was soft, with an easy breeze, the water calm and dark. I walked out onto the rocks to the right of the bay to get settled in for the sunset. Sitting there alone, I noticed a break in the water’s surface, then another, and another. For over an hour I sat and watched maybe five whales, some with calves, swim into the bay individually and, for lack of better word – frolic. They breached, rolled, flipped their tails, and seemed to be having a grand time. I felt blessed. Unlike the rougher water during the whale tour, things were now calm and you could easily spot the whales when they broke the surface. I had an unobstructed balcony seat. Initially, I was upset because I had neither my camera nor binoculars, but then took great pleasure in the fact that I was forced to just sit there and enjoy the show. It is impossible to be in the company of whales without wearing a grin. If any animal can emit goodness, it’s a whale.
(While on riding on the peninsula, I ran into this German family that were traveling together on two older BMW R100’s. They had taken their girls out of school for a year to travel South America – six months going down, and six months going back up. What an education!)