In many ways the South American leg has all been a warm up Patagonia. Expectations are stupidly high and there is a fear that it can’t possibly live up to what my mind tells me it should be like.
Well the good news is that the start was solid. I awoke in the early hours of the morning, on yet another long overnight bus journey to the sight of desert scrub. There was nothing else. Just flat land, full of small shrubs. The sky was filled with grey clouds, giving the landscape a bleak and desolate feel. I could feel the ice cold wind from within the bus. I didn’t need to look for any sign posts; I was in Patagonia.
My first destination was Puerto Madryn, a seaside town founded by the Welsh. Yep, I’m in Welsh country. You wouldn’t know it anymore, the Welsh have long retreated to the villages outside, leaving a town performing a delicate balancing act between aluminium production and tourism. Puerto Madryn is the gateway to Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo, two important areas for wildlife conservation.
So the big question upon arrival was how to see the whales Patagonia ? Within minutes I had found out the answer. You quite literally just see whales in Patagonia. After dumping my bags in the dorm room, I headed out to lunch. The first street I took, took me towards the sea front and there just out from shore was a whale.
The next day, I took a tour to Peninsula Valdes to both get a closer look at the whales as well as the other wildlife. First stop was a beach not far from Puerto Madryn, where at high tide, the whales come incredibly close to the shore. So close in fact that they are nearly on the beach itself!
Then, after another shortish drive we arrived at a small village on the Peninsula, which seems to serve mostly as a home for boat companies to operate out of. After boarding one of them, we took to the ocean in search of an even closer experience with the whales. It didn’t take long to come across a mother and her calf. The Souther Right Whales come to this area to give birth and mate, before returning to Antartica to feed. The size of these creatures is obviously impressive, however, it’s not easy to keep track of mainly because with mother and calf together, there is just a jumble body parts. One moment you’ve got a head and then a tail next to it, followed by a fin somewhere to the right. Being on a boat allowed us to get stupidly close and at one point, a whale actually went underneath the boat. That was when I got a proper idea of the size and started to question the sturdiness of the boat.
After that we spent an age driving around the Peninsula full of that monotonous Patagonian landscape of flat desert scrub. At various places we would get out and see some animals, including elephant seals and sea lions from a distance and penguins up close, however, in the case of penguins, I knew I would be seeing them a couple of days later so tried to pretend that they weren’t there. We also came across an armadillo, llama like creatures and some mix between a capybara and a rabbit. It was a decent enough trip, although absolutely exhausting due to the travel times. The whales stole the show, however, which left the rest of the Peninsula slightly lacking.
It was with this in mind, that I set off on another tour from Puerto Madryn. This time it was to Punta Tombo, which is home to one of the most important colonies of Magellanic penguins. Unlike the previous excursion, this was not on a tour bus, but instead in a car, with the very passionate guide Flavian and two other people, Sam and Dawn, from England and as we set off on another fairly long drive, we were pretty blind to the fantastic sights, which we would see.
Between September and April, hundreds of thousands of penguins, come to lay their eggs and bring up their young. Pictures can’t do this place justice. The sheer scale of the sight is unbelievable. As far as your eye can see there are black and white blobs. It really is quite impossible not to find yourself continuously smiling and laughing at their little waddle, hilarious jumping ability and the weird poses that they make. Then there are the noises. Whether it’s crying out in love or hate, the whole place was full of their sounds.
To be honest, if we had gone back to Puerto Madryn then, then I’d have been happy; however, we didn’t. Instead Flavian decided for the first time this year to check out a 30 km or so dirt track off the main road. He had a hunch. On arrival at the sea, the scenery was spectacular. The sky was full of ominous clouds and the sea was full of anger. We wrapped up warm.
Upon getting out of the car, we spotted them. A colony of Elephant seals had taken up residence on the beach. Now, like penguins, I had seen them on Peninsula Valdes, however, there you are quite far away from them, so whilst impressive they are also underwhelming. That was not to be the case at this destination though.
With no one else there and no facilities, I felt like we felt like we were filming a wildlife documentary as we could get as close to the elephant seals as they would let us. Other than Komodo dragons, I’ve not had a better wildlife experience.
There were pups, full of joy and life, their expressions and the noises they made were absolutely adorable.
Then there was the Daddy. He was enormous. The southern elephant seals can weigh up to 3000kg and can have a length of up to 5m. You might not notice it from this picture, but this is a look of fear hoping that Sam would get on with the photo, after being informed that the big boy had awoken. There is no way that I wanted to get on the wrong side of him. He had so many females around him for a reason. He was the top dog.
The life of an Elephant seal on land is one of sleep and conflict. Other than the pups, they don’t eat. They come to shore to mate and give birth. This means that they don’t move very fast very quickly. It was highly amusing watching the little pups, ‘race’ towards the ocean, as their mothers desperately tried to stop them. Despite only a ten metre or so distance to the waters edge, it took about thirty or so minutes. When not on land, these creatures are able to dive to around 1500 metres and hold their breaths for over an hour and a half. It was such a privilege to spend time these magnificent animals.