Punta Loma lies to the east of Puerto Madryn, beyond the Ecocentro and the beaches. Like El Doradillo, it is a popular destination for adventurous backpackers looking for a nearby bicycling or hitch hiking destination.
However, unlike my trip to El Doradillo, I arrived to Punta Loma by sea.
For land-goers, a dirt road leads to scenic overlook of the Gulf and one of the region’s growing South American sea lion rookeries. Since the 16th century, these gregarious marine mammals were hunted by European colonizers for their warm fur coats, meat, and oil. By the late 19th century, many sea lion rookeries had disappeared from the Patagonian coast.
Sea lion hunting is no longer widely practiced in Patagonia, allowing these marine mammals to begin recovering. Rather than being targeted for their attributes, sea lions may be incidentally caught in fishing nets, or even shot by fishermen who view their growing abundance as a pest problem. As a result, populations in Uruguay and Chile continue to decline. Even though some hunting and incidental capture occurs on the Argentinian coast, its local population is actually growing as much as 5.7% annually.
On their own, South American sea lions do not attract many tourists. From a distance, they are a clump of brown and black spots on the rocky outcroppings of Puerto Piramides or Punta Loma. During my surveys with visitors, respondents consistently listed sea lions as one of the last (or least favorite) animals to view in the region. Many tourists told me that they could see sea lions in their home cities of Mar del Plata or had seen them before in other parts of Patagonia.
In fact, when I last visited Peninsula Valdes in 2010, I only recall briefly seeing sea lions in Puerto Madryn or Playa Union. They were hardly advertised or even featured as an element of the region.
Yet, some enterprising entrepreneurs found a way to even make a buck out of the overlooked local sea lion population. When I arrived to Puerto Madryn in June 2013, I could not escape the advertisements for SCUBA diving trips with sea lions. By far the most expensive diving trip offered (nearly twice the cost of a normal two-tank dive!), dive shops gloated of a unique interaction surpassing even the best experiences with sea lions in the Galapagos.
I couldn’t imagine how diving with sea lions could possibly be more fun, or interactive, than my experience in the Galapagos. One cold morning, I decided to sign up and give it a try.
Even the mate and 7 mm suits couldn’t keep us warm that morning. At 7am, it was raining, and the lack of sunlight and slight ocean breeze sank deep beneath the neoprene into our bones. A few whales, unperturbed by the weather, passed by as we took a small boat to the dive sites. On the horizon, we could see a mast jutting through the surface of the slightly rolling water. This abandoned ship would be our first dive.
We navigated a quick, 20 minute dive through the ship’s interior, exploring the most closed and overhead environment I had ever been in. Our fins easily kicked up the silty bottom, but, otherwise, the visibility was clear.
A plethora of microorganisms, starfish, anemone, and kelp flourished on the wreck’s dying body. A few fish lurked in the shadows, none venturing close enough to identify.
After our brief shipwreck adventure, we took to shallower waters in search of the sea lions. Although only 6 – 12 ft (2 – 4 m) deep, the diving gear helped us stay just below the surface and keep our eyes open for curious pinnipeds. The turquoise blue waters were crystal clear here, making it easy to see the fast moving forms get closer and closer.
Within minutes of entering the water we were surrounded. I felt a tugging at my fin – a young sea lion was biting at it! Cautious and inquisitive, the young sea lions dashed and twirled around our clunky, scuba-laden bodies.
The matriarch of the litter was by far more bold and brazen. Like a labrador retriever, she would playfully bite our hands and snorkels, let her belly be rubbed, and swirl around us.
It was exactly like playing with a litter of puppies – underwater. They seemed to enjoy the interaction as much as we did, but I had to wonder if this was adversely impacting the sea lions in any way. The activity was relatively new and minimally regulated. There were strict time limits on dive time in the protected area, and supposedly a vigilant guard armed with binoculars and a timer, but otherwise little oversight or regulation.
When I later spoke with marine biologists at CENPAT, I discovered that my concerns were not unfounded. They too are beginning to investigate the human-sea lion interactions and find ways forward to support the conservation of this recovering population and the local livelihoods dependent on this new, and lucrative, tourism activity.
The day, like many days in Patagonia, ended under a full sun and blue skies. Onshore, my newest travel companion, a street dog I would later adopt, was waiting for me. I enthusiastically stripped off the layers of neoprene insulation and returned to the daily routine of research. There were few tourists around, and I made sure to take advantage of the situation and survey the two other divers in my group.
I was still a few weeks away from the Argentine winter vacations – two weeks in July when whales and tourists abound the coasts of Puerto Madryn and Peninsula Valdes. For now, I would continue to explore the town and the development of tourism in the region.