To quote Gerald Durrell in The Whispering Land: “It was as if the peninsula and its narrow isthmus was a cul-de-sac into which all the wildlife of Chubut had drained and from which it could not escape.”
After our drive through the arid Patagonian steppe from Puerto Madryn, the landscape suddenly came alive as we entered the peninsula – and I saw what Durrell had meant.
This reserve, a “significant natural habitat for biodiversity”, was declared a World Heritage site in 1999. The peninsula extends into the Atlantic Ocean like an axe-head.
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Carlos Ameghino Isthmus.
The gateway to this enchanting nature reserve is the Carlos Ameghino Isthmus. It is so narrow that at points you can see the Golfo San Jose to the north and Golfo Nuevo to the south.
The Interpretation Centre and museum at the entrance was an eye opener with its scale replicas of orcas and dolphins; an underwater scene; birdlife and fossils.
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Bird watching and Marine mammals.
Groups of partridge-like brown birds with gold speckles (tinamou) revelled in a dust-bath in the road. As the car approached they darted off, the half-moon crest of feathers on their heads fluttering in the wind. Another frequent non-flyer was Darwin’s rhea. This delicate version of the ostrich marched dignified alongside the road. Occasionally, a pair of Patagonian mara or hare would be spotted, lying sunning themselves.
Graceful, rust-coloured guanaco (a wild relative of the llama) grazed in the scrub. A hairy armadillo scuttled from one bush to the next like a wound up clockwork toy. A grey fox furtively chased a cuyo (a type of guinea pig) for a quick snack.
These delightful scenes played out on the 97km washboard gravel road to the coast.
The azure sky melted into the shimmering ocean as we approached the shoreline. This pristine protected coast with its calm waters and rich nutrients is a breeding haven for marine mammals.
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Punta Norte – Sea lion colony & Orcas.
Our first stop was Punta Norte. As we walked towards the observation point, it was the sound that reached me first: a hubbub of bleating, coughing and roaring.
The beach was bedecked with the splendid, shining slinky pelts of the sea lion colony. Pups were playing in the shallow waters, from time to time disturbing their mother’s beauty sleep. Shaggy-necked adult bulls sat with their noses pointing to the sun, occasionally taking stock of their harem.
This playing field is not always so idyllic. It turns into a killing field when the Orcas arrive.
A deep underwater channel allows them to get close to the beach at high tide and chase sea lion pups into the surf. This is a learned behaviour, known as intentional stranding. Adults have been seen teaching their young to hunt, sometimes pulling prey off the beach for youngsters to catch.
This unique hunting method attracts researchers and photographers from around the world. They must obtain a permit and hire a ranger to accompany them to the restricted area of the attack channel. I was not among the few who witnessed this spectacle at high tide.
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Caleta Valdes Elephant seals and Magellanic Penguins
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Caleta Valdes Elephant selas & Magellanic Penguins.
This pristine protected coastline had more to offer. Caleta Valdes is a phenomenal geographical feature. A sandbar stretches parallel to the coast for 30 km, the only inlet being 150m wide.
What looked like huge grey rocks on the beach sprang to life as a lazy flipper tossed sand in the air – elephant seals. Clearly they were intent on sleeping, and there was no way I was going to observe movement from these hulks.
A nearby Magellanic penguin colony was more intriguing as they preened each other and waddled back and forth from their nests to the water’s edge. Wheeling seabirds were part of the ebb and flow.
Wildlife trip to Peninsula Valdes: Puerto Piramides – Southern right Whales.
The only village on the peninsula is Puerto Piramides. Pyramid-shaped cliffs overlook the sheltered bay where southern right whales come to calve and raise their young. “The Paradise” was where I relished a local seafood lunch. And from paradise is where I had to return to Puerto Madryn.
Sitting next to me on the bus to Trelew airport was a little girl from Buenos Aires. As she opened the case she had been clutching, out popped giraffes, rhinos, elephants, lions and zebras. Her dream is to see our South African wildlife. Will she and future generations be able to realise their dream – as I was privileged to do in their country?
Thanks a lot Moyra for Sharing her travel Stories in Patagonia with us!
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