Shooting Scores of Sea Lions After Sailing to Puerto Madryn (or Dining With Captain Bos)

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South America » Argentina » Chubut » Puerto Madryn
January 26th 2013
Published: January 27th 2013
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When we awoke this morning, the sky outside was still dark, something we haven’t been accustomed to at five in the morning. Checking outside, it appeared that we had arrived at our next port of call. I thought that we might be tendering at this port, and I didn’t notice the pier next to the Veendam many decks below the lower promenade. It is a short stay in Puerto Madryn, and we have a rush-rush tour today, as do other visitor’s on HAL tours at this port-of-call. We breakfasted in the Lido once they opened at 6:30 AM. I had some French Toast with sausage and hashed browns; while, Sharon ate the blueberry pancakes (well one pancake had blueberries in it, anyway). I really enjoyed the French Toast and may need to try them again.

We arrived on the pier and made our way to the Red-Number-One bus. We got a seat near the rear. After we’d gone less than 500 feet, my back had already been jolted severely three times, and I would seriously consider an opportunity to walk back to the Veendam if this was to continue much longer. Others on the bus didn’t seem to be suffering as I was, and even Sharon had this “What?” look in her eyes as I grimaced. I know I have back issues, and I’ve really enjoyed this vacation so far as my back goes, having recovered nicely from what I put my back through playing racquetball, but I felt that the last three weeks of recovery had just been erased. Fortunately, the cause of my torment seemed to be these massive speed bumps meant to slow vehicles down, but it appears our bus driver felt little inclination to worry about that in this bus whose shocks needed to be replaced about 50,000 miles ago. Fortunately, once we got away from the shoreline drive, the highway conditions did improve; still, I would endure the occasional jolt. The weather forecast for today was partly cloudy and temperatures in the 80’s Fahrenheit. We headed north from Puerto Madryn, and then east out over the isthmus. On the road out of town we drove over some very desolate and barren land where only the hardiest desert plants could barely survive, with scrub brush similar to interior arid desert areas in California. Our tour guide explained that the wind sweeps in from the Pacific and up the Andes, depositing heavy precipitation on Chile; but, here the wind comes down the other side of the Andes and is very dry as it washes over the land, and the get less than one foot of rain per year. We passed by an open fill dumpsite, and it occurred the area could benefit from the types of recycling efforts we’d just seen being done in Antarctica. Our tour guide in fact noted that those living in this region, Patagonia, are in fact in the early stages of initiating a conversation program, handling waste in a more eco-friendly manner. The problem is that the wind picks up the lighter plastic debris, before the earth movers have a chance to cover the refuse with dirt. We stopped at a visitor center rest station on the isthmus where the ocean can be seen on both sides, and artifacts were on display, such as a whale skeleton. The harbor at Puerto Madryn is the breeding ground for the Southern Blue Whale. Our tour guide noted that the sea gulls in the area have become increasing aggressive over the last twenty years. They’ve been attacking the softer underbelly of young calves while they’re on the surface. In the last year there have been about 111 calves beached because of this behavior; while, twenty years ago this might happen 10 or 11 times. The blue whales other predator is of course the orca, or killer whale, which isn’t a whale at all but a dolphin. They kill the much larger whale by getting above them and preventing them from getting to the surface for air. Once they drown, all the orca wants is to eat the tongue of the blue whale, leaving the rest of the carcass to other scavengers in the sea. While you are at the visitor’s center, don’t forget to use the restroom; which, you’ll find to be one of the nicest and biggest and cleanest “open air” facilities that you’ll find anywhere, and much nicer that what await those at Punte Norte. By “open air” I simply mean that the restroom had open air window openings in each stall looking out on the ocean.

Our bus driver and guide were very adept at spotting wildlife on our drive to Punte Norte, stopping the bus several times, and even backing up once, as our companion bus went speeding by. Indigenous to the area is the Wanaka, a llama-like creature sporting a valuable wooly coat. These creatures are very agile and fast, and can easily clear a six-foot fence used for sheep on these ranges. Our guide noted that the Wanaka are very easy on the local environment, because of their padded feet, and teeth that cut through the grass when they eat; but, sheep with only lower teeth pull up the whole plant, and they tear up the land with their clove feet.

Sharon was excited when she spotted an emu like animal; which, we later learned was a rhea. They are very fast runners. We also spotted a hare-like creature that appeared to be part large rabbit and part dog. After the stop at the visitor center, our tour guide and driver where sharing a drink in a gourd covered with leather with a bent steel straw for sipping. She explained that this is “matte”, a local custom of friendship and cordiality. The drink is brewed in warm water, not hot or it will turn too bitter. The drink is nicknamed “Green Tea of the Jesuits”. She described the drink as an acquired taste… the first sip you may shrug your shoulders and think “eh?” The second sip you begin to wonder if there might be something there after all. The third sip and you’re beginning to appreciate matte. And by the fourth sip you will be hooked for life. It’s a drink that you share with friends. When we arrived at Punte Norte we observed a family at the back of their car, with a camping burner heating up a cup of matte.

We walked down the wooden boardwalk towards the ridge of a small hill overlooking an extended beach below. Already we could hear the sounds of sea lions and the whooshing sound of late breaking surf running up a sandy beach. Nearing the crest of the hill we caught our first whiff of the pungent odor of the sea lions. And there were thousands of them up and down the beach, most of them nesting in small family units, with the much larger male, the docile and sometimes playful females, both sporting their reddish orange fur coats. The first thing that strikes you is the startling realization that the males really do have a lion-like main. The older males are massive creatures, and their mane easily makes them stand out next to the younger males. Sea lions take five years to mature from a junior sea lion and its jet-black coloring, to a mature adult. Sea lions then live to be about 15 years old, so they have a relatively short lifespan. The older bigger males may have harems with as many as twenty females in it, and they seemed to be spending most of the day defending one or more of them from being poached by another male. During a confrontation, the defending male will generally offer his best roar, and take a step or two towards the interloper, who then must decide to stand and fight or leave. If the sea lion is intimidated and does not truly believe he will win, then he will retreat. A tactic a group of young males often employ, and we saw this re-enact in front of us continuously, is one will begin to encroach on a large male’s harem, while one or more others will try a quick bootie run on the other side. The large males we watched seem to know all of the young sea lion’s tricks, and they would briefly charge the initiator, and then quickly bound to the other side, herding the females away from the other males. Many of the sea lions were just lounging lazily in the sun. Groups of tiny young seals born this season were playing near the water’s edge in groups, overlooked by their mothers. Mothers usually give birth to one pup per season, but occasionally she will have twins. In a couple more weeks the water’s edge could become a dangerous place for these young pups to be playing, as orca’s will start hunting these waters in February. On this very beach orcas will intentionally beach themselves to try and grab one of these young seals and drag it into the water. There they begin a class teaching other young orcas about sea lions, tossing the unfortunate pup back and forth. In the end, if they are hungry, they will eat the pup; but, sometimes the orcas simply let the pup go, battered and bruised and maybe a bit wiser for the wear. Our guide suggested that these battered pups may need 12 years of therapy to fully recover.

We walked as far as we could to the edge of the fenced elevated observation area, beyond the boardwalk and on an uneven dirt trail where my hiking boots came in handy. The concentration of sea lions were dwindling, although there were a couple out in the ocean, fishing and playing and one even looked like he was body surfing in the small swells. Here we spotted a junior elephant seal just laying in the sand. It got up and moved a bit, before plopping back down in the sand. The mating season for the elephant seal is October to November, when these beaches will be absolutely covered with elephant seals, just as they are now in the sea lion mating season. Sea lions have a front flipper, as well as a rear, and this enables them to get around using a walking mechanism… while the elephant seal gets around on land using a slug-like slithering motion. Also, during the sea lion mating season, the sea lion can just pop into the sea if it get hungry for a bite to eat, his dietary needs met by the ocean buffet before him. The elephant seal however feeds on squid, many miles away, and so when he arrives during the mating season, he may go as long as three months fasting. Large males may balloon up to 8,000 pounds. During two months of fasting they will lose close to half of that. The males are the only ones that develop the large bulbous nose, and it will get bigger and uglier each year. The seals will molt their coat every year and grow a newer roomier one for the next season.

Back at the bus our “Box Lunch” had been left in our seat, and we picked up a welcome bottle of cold water when entering the bus. It contained two sandwiches, and unlike the ones we had on the penguin island ferry, these two buns contained recognizable ingredients: ham, turkey and cheese. It did come with a packet of mayonnaise. It also came with the smallest apple you are likely to find anywhere, but it was fresh and tasty. And it came with a crunchy candy bar with chocolate chips, that Sharon didn’t care for, but I liked it.

We had to rush back to make sure we arrived in time to sail. We did have time to briefly stop and look at a small harbor that the whale watching tours sail from, and the ocean blue here is a vivid aqua marine. We arrived at high tide, and had a very steep gangway to walk down to the local pier. An eighty-eight year old woman ahead of us in a wheel chair was assisted by three of HAL’s crew, who basically had to carry her and her chair as a unit down the gangplank. It would have been too difficult to roll her in the chair to shore because of the footing skids in the gangplank (to keep those on foot from slipping, but posing formidable bumps for wheelchairs.) Arriving back just over six hours later, were at low tide, and the gangplank was about level to walk onto the same deck five.

Sharon made a beeline to the Lido where she got a burger and fries. I made myself two tacos and ordered us a Coke to share. I picked up the Sudoku on the way back to the room, and we had to get ready to meet the captain. We were among the first to arrive at the Explorer’s Lounge for cocktails. I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea. Sharon ordered a Coke. Cruise Director Kelsey showed up to join us for cocktails and dinner. A couple from Denmark who were 5-star members of the Mariner’s Society expressed some concern that they were unable to get ashore in Puerto Madryn because the ramp was too steep for the husband’s scooter. Captain Bos then showed up, bumped fists with everyone. Shortly after, RuthC joined us, also a 5-star member, and dining with us tonight as well. The captain explained that at high tide, the fifth deck was the only option for disembarking. The next deck down would have been below the pier. They seemed to accept that explanation. The captain told a humorous story on this cruise where an elderly British lady came up to him and asked him, “And what do you do?” He replied, “Ma’am, I’m the Captain.” “No, you’re not,” she said. “You’re right,” the captain said. “I’m just an actor they pay to play the captain and greet passengers, while he’s on the bridge.” And she just smiled, shaking her finger at the captain knowingly, agreeing that that’s what she had guessed.

When it was time for dinner, we went down to the promenade deck to make our way to the Captain’s table, a large round table set for ten people. The stewards carried our cocktails from the lounge to the dinner table. My Long Island Iced Tea was very good, it would have been approved by Ron, the best man at our wedding, who sometimes orders these out. I’ll have to order another to find if this was exceptionally good because it was served at the Captain’s pre-dinner party, or if this is the way they make all of the drinks… full strength. I know that it’s heads and shoulders better than any Long Island Iced Tea that I’ve ever had out which tend to be watered down quite a bit. Each place was set with a plate with a HAL ship in gold leaf on the china surface. The stewards placed our napkins in our laps, and then untied a rolled up parchment standing in front of each of our plates, hand each person the menu for this evening’s meal. It was not the meal being served to others in the Rotterdam that evening. The first course was a choice of a fruit medley or escargots. The second course was a Caesar’s Salad. The third course was a tomato bisque soup with crème fraische. The entrée was your choice of four things: I had the “surf and turf” filet mignon and lobster tail, while Sharon had the lamb chops. We were offered regular bottled water (for Sharon), and I decided on the bubbly water (I guess that “con gas” is beginning to grow on me). We were also offered both white and red wines. Everything about the meal was wonderful. Captain Bos said that before he took over the Veendam he had captained the Volendam for five years. He said that Holland America prefers that captains take over a different ship every three or four years, so he had about outstayed his welcome with the Volendam. The Volendam is the ship that Sharon and I had first cruised together on in Australia, and we thought that he seemed familiar. For desert they brought us a dessert called “Chocolate Fantasy”. It was a delicious treat, a moist cake, containing white chocolate, nuts and chocolate, with chocolate icing and topped with cotton candy and other fancy confectioner decorations. It was surprisingly good.

We were a few minutes late getting to tonight’s show, featuring Siobhan Phillips playing the piano, singing songs and her unique brand of self-deprecating humor. Siobhan is the performer that was forced to jump aboard the Veendam from a tug boat in Ushuaia.

After the Show we went to the Ocean Bar and met up with Ruth. We sat and talked for a bit, and Sharon ordered a Coke which we split.


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