Category Archives: Marine conservation

An Unusual Ecology in Patagonia

An Unusual Ecology in Patagonia

In Península Valdés, clever kelp gulls have learned to feed on the living flesh of southern right whales. Learn more about this strange interaction through my latest photo essay at Sage Magazine. 

 

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Diving with Sea Pups: Punta Loma, Argentina

Punta Loma Sea Lion pup

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

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.

Puerto Piramides Sea Lions

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

Somehow, even the water felt warm compared to the wintry surface conditions.
Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.
Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

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.

Punta Loma

Introduction 2014

The interdependence of human society and the ocean is a theme that encompasses global environmental, political, and social policy and practice. The ocean provides goods and services that benefit all humanity, from the rich protein of fish to biodiversity and carbon storage. Yet our conceptions of the “renewable” water cycle and that there are “always more fish in the sea” lead us to overfish and pollute our oceans. As coastlines worldwide urbanize and increase pressure on our limited marine resources, we will need new and innovative strategies to balance conservation, industrial and commercial activities, and recreational activities in these environments.

I am a PhD Student of Environmental Economics at Duke University, the Nicholas School of the Environment. I just received my Master’s in Environmental Science from the Yale School of Forestry and I hold a B.S. in Economics and B.A. from Tulane – not the typical degrees for environmental conservation.  My research focuses on resource economics, where I investigate sustainable strategies for coastal development and conservation, where conflicting uses of limited resources lie at the intersection of conservation, tourism, and industrial activities.

My recent Master’s research focused on marine mammal conservation and wildlife viewing tourism in Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. As a child, I would visit my grandparents in Buenos Aires every Christmas to enjoy the austral summer. As I grew older, I strove to maintain my Argentine heritage by studying Spanish, cooking traditional foods, and eventually studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It was in the austral spring of 2010 that I discovered a marine paradise on the windy Patagonian coast of the Peninsula Valdes World Heritage site in Argentina. A dry and shrubby land of guanacos and penguins juxtaposed against turquoise ocean waters filled with southern right whales. This Patagonian adventure shifted my undergraduate focus towards environmental management and pushed me to pursue a Master’s degree in Environmental Science (focus: resource economics) at Yale University.

In the summer of 2013, I fulfilled a three year goal to return to Peninsula Valdes and survey tourists on their wildlife viewing preferences and motivations for visiting the site, and the expenditures incurred to realize the trip. With these surveys, I hope to demonstrate the local, national, and international economic and social importance of marine mammal conservation in this region.

In addition to my academic work, I am also a PADI Dive Master and the acting U.S. Coordinator for Cousteau Divers, non-profit aimed at training divers to become citizen scientists and aid in the monitoring of marine ecosystems worldwide. I work with students at the Canterbury School in Saint Petersburg, Florida and trained divers on a special expedition to the Galapagos Islands last year.

This blog is a platform for sharing photographs, tales of adventure, and economic insights to marine conservation issues and fascinating marine ecosystems. In 2012 – 2013, I traveled to the Galapagos Islands, Patagonia, Argentina, and the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014, I hope to document further travels in Patagonia, the Caribbean, and Gulf Coast of the United States. I hope this blog not only shares my stories, but also serves as a resource for anyone aspiring to make a more positive impact on our oceans.

Bottazzi Whale Watch

Summer Research Summary: Peninsula Valdes, Argentina

Over the summer 2013, I spent three months in Patagonia, Argentina, where I surveyed over 600 tourists on their wildlife viewing preferences, travel plans and expenditures, and motivations for visiting the World Heritage Site.

For a brief summary of my summer (austral winter) research experience and travels in Patagonia, Argentina, please read my latest Sage Magazine article:

Stephanie Stefanski in Patagonia, Argentina

Southern Right Whale by Puerto Madryn

Where the Whales Lie: El Doradillo, Argentina

Today, I felt adventurous. After nearly two weeks in Puerto Madryn, exploring the city, meeting the people, searching for tourists to interview, I wanted a day away. I wanted an adventure.

Untitled

Three years ago, when I first came here, a friend and I walked, and then hitchhiked, to a site called El Doradillo. The site is about 18 km from town and open to the public, unlike other protected areas, which charge an entrance fee. This protected series of beaches surround an inshore area where the Southern Right Whales can breed and nurture their young in peace. The rocky beach drops off suddenly, allowing the whales to venture close to the shore. Sometimes, they are almost close enough to touch.

The sun usually rises by 9hs, followed by the slow opening of the stores throughout the town. The season is still quiet, as there won’t be large numbers of tourists until the end of June or mid July. Both the stores, and I, anxiously await their arrival so that our work can begin. As a result, many stores catering to tourists barely open by 10hs.

After acquiring a local bike rental, I set off at 10:30 for El Doradillo. The path begins easy – a paved sidewalk along the beach. I can already see the whales splashing in the surf. People stop to photograph them, but I continue onwards, knowing they will be much closer at my destination.

Soon, the road turns to dirt and I must follow a detour to another path of ripio. The wind blows hard against my bicycle, which does its best to withstand the changing landscape beneath and forceful winds. Occasionally, a car passes by, obscuring all. I press onwards, hoping to avoid any unfortunate collisions.

The landscape never changes. To my left, shrubbery and a plateau. The smell of cattle as I pass a farm. To my right, beyond the shrubbery, the blue ocean. I can occasionally see a spray of water as a whale exhales.

Punta Fletcha

I approach the first entrance of El Doradillo, but the perfect viewing site is still a few miles away. I push forward to Punta Fletcha, an elevated viewpoint. Here, looking straight down into the water, you can see the whales as they pass by below. You can hear their powerful breaths. The area is full of them.

Ballenato

I meet another young woman, also traveling by bike. Finally, a visitor I can interview! In this epoca baja, visitors are few and far between, making my work challenging. We finish our interview, discuss the wildlife, and I continue to Playa Las Canteras.

Southern Right Whale playing by El Doradillo

When I arrive, I know I’ve arrived to the right place. A beach of black, smooth pebbles drops off into the sea, as a group of five whales splashed around in the shallows. A few visitors stand on the beach, watching the spectacle. Powerful blasts of air and water accompany the gentle roll of waves. The whales are nearly close enough to touch. Many locals, and Argentine nationals, often opt to visit this site rather than pay the entrance fee and trip expenses to go to Puerto Piramides for a whale watching boat excursion. The proximity of the whales, and the low cost to see them as such, is an experience unknown in most other parts of the world, and one of the many unique facets of the Peninsula Valdes World Heritage Site.

Untitled

It had been three years since my last visit here, but two things had not changed: the proximity of the whales and the quantity of gulls harassing them. As I sat on the beach, I watched as kelp gulls swarmed the southern right whale, sometimes diving down to bite off skin. Their parasite-like behavior is the result of opportunistic feeding evolution and an over-population spurred by poor waste management. Only controversial and complex solutions have been put forward, from improving waste management to culling the gulls through targeted hunting of the “attacker gulls.” Despite over ten years of discussion and awareness of the problem (although many locals and visitors still deny that these gulls are causing any real harm), very little has been done to address the gull pest problem.

As the whales and visitors disperse, and the sun slowly sinks into the horizon, I begin my uphill journey back to Puerto Madryn.

El Doradillo

Life by the Sea: Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Almanecer

The sun rises at 8:45 am here. I start a run towards the coast, four blocks away at the end of my street. It’s a quiet ocean, low, gentle rolling waves. Some days it more closely resembles a vast and endless lake. A soft scent of sea air fills the atmosphere. Dogs chase each other on the beach, barking enthusiastically as their owners run along the sandy shore.

Lonco

Here, the dogs are their own masters. They navigate the streets, playing with school children, begging scraps from kind strangers, and following always in my shadow.

Southern Right Whale Breaching by Puerto Madryn

And there, amongst the sheet of blue, the dark shadow of a whale. A poof of spray breaks the horizon as she powerfully exhales. With luck, you may see a much larger flash of white break – the sign of a goliath breaching, soaring towards the sky. And then again. And again. Always in a successful pattern.

Sea Lion by La Muelle

The pier offers some of the best whale watching, as bystanders can watch whales breach right next to it or venture underneath it during high tide. Occasionally, a curious sea lion can be found basking in the sun right below. On this pier, untamed marine wildlife and curious urban dwellers can meet face to face, exaggerating the land-sea interface of this region.

Illegal Fishing Ship

The growing urbanization of Puerto Madryn and nearby cities, however, places pressure on its neighboring marine ecosystems. Further from the coast, large commercial fishing fleets line Argentina’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waiting to illegally plunder her bounty of marine life. Squid, hake, and prawns are three commercially important fisheries in this region, each one sought by Argentine and international fishing fleets. The Argentine navy, challenged by bribery and the vast expanse of the EEZ zone, is responsible for the prevention of illegal and unregulated fishing. During my visit, the navy hauled in Spanish and Chinese fishing ships caught illegally fishing in Argentine waters. Both sat on the pier for weeks until their respective governments paid millions of dollars in fines to release their crew and return their ships.

Puerto Madryn

I continue my run along the coast, passing dive shops, other runners, and various cafes. Statues commemorate the arrival of the first explorers – Welsh settlers – among other things. Tributes to the bounty of marine mammals that live here cover the town –wall murals, gift shops, and endless entrances to tour companies offering exciting excursions.

Peninsula Valdes is home to southern right whales, South American sea lions, Southern elephant seals, Magellanic penguins, and dusky dolphins, the list goes on. Once almost hunted to extinction, the southern right whale is now a national monument. Even the locals, who watch as these whales arrive each year in early June and depart by December, stop and stare in awe as a whale ventures close to shore, splashing in the surf and raising its tail to the skies. Here the sense of wonder for nature persists, a sentiment too seldom lost, or too obscured, by the consumerism of North America.

Playa

I arrive towards the center of town, passing by the tourism office and shopping mall, and begin my walk onto the pier. Here, local boys and older men come to fish recreationally. A few government vessels and a local cruise ship dock at the pier. Occasionally, a whale passes by. I can see lines of sail boats on the other side of the pier, taking advantage of the mountain winds that sweep through Puerto Madryn. I pull my jacket closer and approach the end of the pier.

I hear a powerful exhalation – a spray of water through the space of time. I turn and see two whales nearby. Others on the pier have turned to look too. We all stop, frozen in the same moment, caught by the same sound. She spy hops, looking back at us. The callosities adorning her head and mouth set her apart from others. Each has their own unique pattern of these whale lice and flesh configurations.

Ballena Franca Austral

I turn around. Time to work. I grab my surveys and my computer, packing a bag for a trek in the other direction. With the city center to my back, I walk a good half-hour along the coast to CENPAT, the regional research institute. I spend half of my walk with my head turned left towards the sea – eyes straining for a glimpse of a whale. They seem to appear less frequently on this side of town, but still I manage to see a quick flash of black as one passes through.

I start my work in a cubicle, greeting the other student researchers in the room. I am but one economist among a center of biologists, but all are curious of my work, and more than happy to help in any way.

Puesta del Sol

As the skies darken around 5pm, I pack my bags and begin the trek home. By 6pm, the sun has set and my nine hours of daylight have ended. Sometimes, I walk through town, finding a café to sit in and watch as people pass by. At this moment, the town is quiet, filled with more locals than wandering travelers and visiting families. The shop owners stand bored behind their counters; today there are no tourists to buy souvenirs. Still a month remains before national vacationers and international tourists arrive. I too wait for this day to start my surveys.

Casita

In my apartment, I can hear the gentle patter of rain against the roof. The sound is calming; it fills the empty space of this small house. I play some music and experiment with cooking pasta in a kettle, as my skeleton kitchen lacks most cooking tools. Without the luxury of Internet, I sit here and write, sketch a drawing, revise my survey, read a book, watch a television show. Simple distractions to pass the time until sunrise.

Departure: Galapagos Day 7

Sea Lion

At last, it was time to return to land. Before our final stop in the Galapagos, we would venture to see the island’s symbol of endemic and endangered species: The Galapagos Tortoise. Huge, shy creatures, they could be found throughout “farms” where they are protected from hunting and other threats.

Galapagos Tortoise

At last, with a heavy heart, and the sway of the boat still in our steps, we returned to San Cristobal, where we had embarked only a week prior.

Sea Lion

With a few hours remaining before our flights, we visited a nearby Sea Lion Refuge, full of squealing pups and protective mothers.

Sea Lion pup and mother

When we finally arrived to the airport, we learned our flights had been delayed, although no reason was given. We passed the time reminiscing of the week’s journey, almost in a state of shock that it had already ended. For a week, we had been disconnected from the world, submerged in a place where dolphin speak and waves filled the void and where hand signals convey life-saving messages. As we turned on our phones and electronic devices, connecting to the outside world for the first time since our arrival, we were greeted by news of an impending hurricane in the Northeast United States – the destination of a few of the travelers, including myself.

Yet even that news seemed to hold no meaning – it was of another place. It wasn’t until en route, shaken by the turbulence of the hurricane, that I felt the weight of the world awaiting my return.