Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valdes Peninsula

The Valdes Peninsula is on the Atlantic Coast, in the province of Chubut. At around 1400 sq. mile (3600 sq. km.), the nature reserve was listed as a World Heritage Site in 1999. The coastline is inhabited by sea lions, elephant seals, fur seals and Magellanic penguins. From June through December, thousands of Southern Right whales come to reproduce and give birth here. The months of March and April are known for being the feeding grounds for Orcas, who have developed a technique of beaching themselves to get to the sea lions, must taste yummy! It is a clear, sunny but windy day. Following the map given to us by the guide at the Visitor Center and her instructions, we headed to Punta Cantor. “Be there around 11am as that is high tide and so the animals are closer and easier to see” she had said. The only paved road on the peninsula is route 2 coming in. All other roads are crushed gravel and in parts, quite rough going. Punta Cantor is 75km (about 47mile) away and took us an hour and a half to get there. We went first to the ranger station where the elephant seal colonies are. Getting out of the RV, we were surprised to see a group of eight grey foxes hanging around. They did not seem particularly scared and I managed to get fairly close to two who were sunning themselves. Unfortunately, the colony of seals was quite far away but we had stunning views from the cliffs of an area known as the Caleta Valdes, a large natural inlet and beyond it, the Atlantic Ocean. The sea is a beautiful bright blue and so clear. It would make for some superb diving or snorkeling. From there we went north a few miles to the penguin colony. This is the first time we have ever seen penguins in their natural habitat. These are small Magellanic penguins, standing about 18 inches (50cms) tall. They are black and white and so cute. Their burrows are everywhere. They are not at all shy and come very close to us. There are plenty of signs saying not to touch or feed them. The penguins are everywhere. By the water, swimming and playing, climbing the cliff to their burrows and coming up to visitors. Suddenly, two appeared at my feet. I had not seen their burrow and they emerged, shaking and started to groom themselves. “Late risers” I said to Tom and we laughed as he took more photos. Following the coast, our final stop was 47km (30mile) further north at Punta Norte. Known for its sea lion and elephant seal breeding colonies it is most famous, thanks to National Geographic, as the area where, because of the shallow beach conditions the Orcas (Killer whales) have developed a unique hunting strategy. They literally race through the shallow surf to snatch sea lions or young elephant seal, often throwing themselves onto the beach in the process. It is too early for the hunting season but we had been told that pods of Orcas had been seen off the coast however today was not one of them. We left without spotting any but we did see thousands of sea lions and elephant seals all with lots of pups so when those Orcas do show up, there is plenty of food. Back in the parking lot there was a very curious and friendly pichi running around. This is like a hairy armadillo but with a tail. More photographs. One lady committed the ultimate transgression on a nature reserve by feeding it. As we left she and the guard were exchanging heated words but honestly is there a person out there who does not know that universally you never, ever feed the wild animals. As Tom said she knew she was wrong but did not like being caught and then chastised by a guard in front of people. Don’t feed the animals and no matter how hard it might be, don’t touch the penguins. It was now another 90 minutes drive back to town. As we drove we saw herds of the guanaco out on the pampas and plenty of birds which we try to identify using our newly acquired Patagonia and Antarctica field guide. Back in town we stopped off at a couple of the souvenir shops. I bought a fleece jacket as my winter clothes are in scarce supply and Tom a T-shirt. We also got a couple of stickers to put on our rear window advertising the fact that we have actually been here. It was then back to our parking spot from the night before and a long run on the beach for Winston who has been a real trooper today and very patient. As the wind continued to rock out motorhome and put me to sleep, my thoughts were on penguins. Don’t pet the penguins.

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