on a cliff high above the ocean
Mother Nature has stocked Puerto Madryn and the nearby Valdez Peninsula, the Atlantic coast entry to Patagonia, with wonderful treasures that change through the seasons. I was there in the sizzling summer, in February and just in time to see half a million adorable Magellanic penguins and their fluffy chicks as well as large colonies of huge, brown southern sea lions and their little black pups, a few elephant seals imitating logs, rheas (ostrich-like birds), lots of sea birds--cormorants, red-beaked and legged black oyster catchers, giant petrels and kelp gulls--and herds of guanacos (wild camelid relatives of llamas). Not seen by me were lots more animals, including foxes, armadillos, orcas, spinner dolphins and the southern right whale which goes there to breed and give birth.
The 21-hour marathon bus ride that brought me here from Buenos Aires showed three surprisingly-good films in English with Spanish subtitles--Invictus, Ice Age for the kids in the morning, and My Sister's Keeper. We rode through flat, bleak, unrelenting, seemingly-lifeless desert landscapes, so when not watching a film, I entertained myself with some of the Mercedes Sosa CDs I'd bought. She was a fabulously-beloved Argentine singer of folk and popular songs who died while I
was in Bs As. My favorite CD is her singing the songs of Chilean Violetta Parra, a champion of human rights (she wrote Gracias a la Vida, which is pretty well known in the states).
I'd taken the cheapest bus option which had been quite reasonable--less than $50, but when I decided to stay longer in Bs As to spend more time in the Tigre delta, I had to pay half as much again to change the ticket. I always stay longer than planned, so it's so dangerous for me to make reservations--another reason I tend to lay low and avoid travel in the high season, and why I spent the whole month of January in sultry Buenos Aires.
I'd come to Puerto Madryn primarily to see penguins. To visit those at Punto Trumbo, the largest nesting grounds on continental South America, and the wealth of wildlife on the Valdez Peninsula's Wildlife Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage biosphere, it was necessary to take all-day tours with long hours in minivans on dirt roads. Both days had a mix of Argentinians and foreigners, so I got to practice my Spanish and make sure I understood with the English.
This is the beginning of my tour taking. In Europe and North America, I've almost never taken a tour, but in South America, public transportation just doesn't go to a lot of tourist sites and trails are often unmarked, so I'm going to be reduced to paying lots and traveling in a herd. Not my preferred method, but you do what you must; besides, the tour guides were wonderfully knowledgeable and the other tourists interesting.
After hours of driving, we arrived at Punto Tumbo and paid the entrance fee to the provincial reserve--70 pesos for foreigners and 25 for Argentinians--all the parks have this two-tiered system. Stepping out of the van, we were amazed to see penguins a kilometer inland on the scrubby desert. They were everywhere--in their underground burrows, waddling around, hanging out taking in the rays with their eyes closed like beach bunnies, shading themselves under bushes, walking in a parade line to the sea, gathered on the shore or swimming. The fluffy, brown chicks were rather large by now, having hatched in mid-November, and could sometimes be seen badgering their parents for regurgitated seafood.
A sad site was a kelp gull, its beak all bloody,
eating a chick. I also saw a parent hovering over its chick, standing between it and a hungry gull. The chicks are tasty morsels for seabirds and foxes. I'm sure if I were seeing a documentary on the red or gray foxes and their struggle to feed their cute little kits, my sympathy would have been on the other side. More on the drama of the food chain later.
Magellanic penguins are monogamous and mate for life, baring occasional problems such as the male not preparing a proper nest or being usurped by a stronger male. Both parents share in the incubation of the egg and feeding of the fluffy chicks--a fine feminist arrangement of shared responsibility. Once parents and chicks have molted and gotten new feathers (really more like scales), they will head for the waters off Brazil where they'll spend 5 months of winter feeding without coming onto land.
The penguins took us in stride and had we not been warned not to touch them, it seemed we could have easily pet them. However, we were warned that they bite, and also were a youngster touched by a human, it could be rejected by its parents.
Barf us some munchies!
Thus, we stayed on the walkways and gave the penguins the right of way when they crossed our paths. Needless-to-say, we all took a zillion photos.
The next day, I joined another tour to the Valdez Peninsula and its fauna reserve. The inland parts of the peninsula are the same flat, dry landscape I'd seen coming in to Patagonia--the famous Patagonian steppe. Large tracks of this land had been leased to sheep ranchers; wild guanacos could often be seen joining the sheep at their watering troughs.
The wildlife for which the peninsula was famous was along the 400 km of coastline. Our first stop was an excellent museum with explanations in Spanish and English, explaining the geology, the life of the indigenous Tehuelche, the sealing history, and the wildlife. Next to Puerto Piramides, a two-street town set up primarily to cater to tourists, especially whale watching boats in season. While others visited the tourist shops and restaurants, I walked along the beautiful cliffs of soft clay with shells embedded in them. On the side of a cliff, there were the bones of a whale in them.
On to Punta Cantor, where, llazing on the gravel spits, were
a few giant elephant seals, part of the only breeding colony in continental South America. Another stop brought us to a Magellanic penguin colony high on cliffs over the ocean where we were again amazed to see the waddling penguins patiently climbing these steep cliffs with their very short legs.
Our final stop was at Punta Norte where we marveled at hundreds of huge southern sea lions, lined up along the shore. Fortunately, I'd remembered to bring my opera glasses which really helped us see the interactions below. The sea lions (sea wolves in Spanish) were gathered in harems around the giant males, though sometimes, a mass of the little black pups were hanging out together. Fortunately, this wasn't the mating season, as it had been when I was in Uruguay. For then, the males have terrible, loud fights which were quite unpleasant to observe (though some come just to see this--go figure).
A month from now, these pups will be learning to swim, and about 8% of them, as well as elephant seal pups, will end of being eaten by the orcas who also visit these shores. Amazingly, a few of these orcas, who are in the
dolphin family, have learned to almost beach themselves to catch the young pups. While it sounds utterly gruesome, it's hugely popular with tourists. in the 1970s, people wanted to kill the orcas to save the pups, but eventually realized that this is just another rung in the food chain.
The Valdez Peninsula is mostly famous for its calm bays that allow southern right whales to mate and give birth from June to mid-December, though this year, due to climate change, they were there a month later than ever before. Great for the Puerto Madryn tourist trade.However, there is a challenge facing the whales that may force them to relocate.
Seagulls have always eaten the skin naturally shed by the whales. However, there has been a huge increase in the seagull population, and they are now attacking the whales and feeding on sensitive skin pulled off the whales' backs. Environmentalists are warning that the whales may find other places to give birth if they continue to be attacked. Finally the city is doing something to curb the gull population.
The gull population explosion resulted from the increased feeding opportunities at the ever-growing, open-air city dump. The city is
proposing covering or burying the garbage, so it doesn't support such a large gull population. Let's hope that this works though I did tell many of Santa Barbara's successful efforts in keeping gulls out of the garbage with hawks.
Like much of Patagonia, Puerto Madryn, population 90,000, is a relatively young city, founded by the Welsh in 1886. Settlement by Europeans in the state of Chubut began only in 1865 with the arrival of the Welsh. The British had been eying the territory, so the Argentinians, knowing the Welsh hated the British, invited them to establish colonies here as a bulwark against the British.
The first Welsh arrived aboard boats and dug out houses in caves in the soft clay of the cliffs that I visited north of town. Life was difficult for them, for few of them had been farmers. Like the myths around our Pilgrims, these settlers were helped by the local Tehuelche, and established several towns in the state of Chubut. The Welsh respected the indigenous people and this was one of the few instances in the new world where the two groups coexisted peacefully.
Our tour to Punto Tumbo's penguin colony included a
stop at the small Welsh town of Gaiman. The Welch heritage and language are being revived and celebrated, and lots of "authentic" tea houses established to glean the tourist dollars. While the rest of our tour group spooned out an exorbitant $20 for tea and sweets (I've never found any Argentine sweets I liked), a couple of Israeli professors and I headed for the park for picnics we'd brought and then a meander around the sleepy town.
Puerto Madryn itself was a pleasant enough town whose livelihood is based on the somewhat toxic aluminum mining operations, fisheries and tourism. It has a long beach filled with basking families, a pier and a beach boardwalk for strolling, and a couple of wonderful museums. One was an experiential, Eco Center that included a touch pool with starfish and such.
My favorite was the Provincial Museum of Man and the Sea with exhibits on natural sciences and oceanography. It was sited in a gorgeously-restored Victorian mansion with a tower lookout. Stuffed birds of prey floated in the spiral staircase and whale and dolphin skeletons were suspended below the carved plaster ceilings. It also had a extensive, sympathetic exhibit on orcas and
the famous beaching ones nearby. I also learned there that hunting of sea lions was outlawed only in 1974--better late than never.
I stayed in the town longer than planned because the computer at the bus terminal seemed to break down every evening that I'd returned from tours. I finally left after five days on a relatively short 13-hour overnight bus to inland Patagonia to the hippie town of El Bolson. My real adventures in nature were about to begin.
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