Category Archives: Marine Species

Discussion on marine species identification, conservation statement, and management strategies.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

A Paradise: The Galapagos Day 5

Originally Written October 2012

Day 5: Wolf Island, Shark Cove and Landslide 

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How do you describe paradise? How can you accurately describe a fleet of eagle rays gliding in perfect formation, as schools of hammerhead sharks pass overhead and a turtle accompanies you?

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How can you begin to imagine the sensation of diving alongside a mammoth whale shark, following her into the vast blue, your air supply depleting as your tired legs and lungs gasp for air, only to find yourself surrounded by nothing more than schools of fish and pure emptiness? How do you describe such an immense amount of biodiversity filling your field of vision?

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What does it mean to playfully roll about in the surf, with Galapagos fur seals as your companions? Their large eyes holding a curiosity equal only to your own.

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Here, even the fish hold their own vanity in showing off their bright hues and fantastic displays of fins and scales. Like dancers of the sea, they are.

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The clear, blue water allowed us to see for meters in any direction, allowing us to accompany as many as 12 whale sharks on a single dive. Throughout the dives, the incessant chatter of dolphins distracted our ever-searching eyes, hopeful for the sight of any kind of macrofauna. Our search was not in vain, as we were rewarded with a show of marine life that put the most impressive aquariums and marine collections to shame. As pods of dolphins played overhead, and even below, a constant stream of hammerhead sharks could be seen in almost any direction. The friendliest Galapagos Sea Turtles also made an appearance, gently gliding alongside our cameras for some photographs before departing into the currents.

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What we saw at Wolf Island during a day of diving goes beyond any expectations, or even dreams, of what we hoped to see.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 25 m / 80′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 8 – 12 m

Temperature: 22 – 24 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 3, Morning

Originally written October 2012

Day 3: Wolf Island, Shark Cove

Hammerhead Sharks

“Diver’s Paradise.” “The Golden Grail of Diving.” “One of the best diving sites in the world.”

These phrases, among others, have been used to describe the underwater experience associated with Islands Wolf and Darwin.

Both sites are world renown for dense schools of Scalloped Hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini).  As you can see from the photo, these guys pose a minimum threat to humans. They tend to be shy and would often dissipate into the surrounding blue whenever we, a group of noisy bubble-makers, tried to approach.

This apparent abundance can be deceiving – these creatures are listed as endangered and are threatened by shark finning and by becoming entangled in nets meant for other fish. Fortunately, these sharks, among other species of sharks, were recently protected at the CITES conference in Bangkok this past March 2013.

Spotted Eagle Ray
Other members of the shark and ray family filled the site. Schools of Silky Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, huge stingrays, and even fleets of spotted eagle rays crossed our paths. Spotted Eagle Rays (Aerobatus narinari) can be found in the Gulf of Mexico and other tropical seas. Their dark coloring with white spots distinguish them from all other types of rays. Like other rays, they eat mostly crustaceans, shellfish, and other creatures that can be found on the sea bottom. Their strange looking snouts even help them dig in the sand in search of food!

While the undulating bodies of the hammerheads seemed graceful against the ocean blue, and the gentle ‘flying’ of the eagle rays made them appear like flocks of birds, the almost militant march of the silky sharks was both heart-stopping and intimidating. As I lay against a rocky outcrop, I watched as a formation determinedly swam in front of me, less than a meter away. Minimizing my breathing, I hid against a rock waiting for the silkies to venture closer.

Silky Sharks
I eventually did have a close encounter with Silky Sharks, needless to say I felt less brave without the ‘protection’ of my noisy scuba gear.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 2

Originally Written October 2012

Day 2: Cabo Marshall, Isla Isabela

Isla Isabella

The island of Isabela lies east of San Cristobal. We journeyed overnight to the northern point, which would provide an ideal point of departure the following day for the islands of Wolf and Darwin.

After a dive briefing, we prepared for the first dive with a range of gear. Some wore 5 mil wetsuits while others donned semi-dry or even dry-suits. Nearly every diver made a final safety check on camera and video equipment, hoping the o-rings would hold. The mere review of signals for different animals we would see throughout the week left us full of excitement and eagerness to jump into the clear, blue waters.

King Angelfish

We boarded the zodiacs, small vessels that permitted the group of divers to explore the reef in two smaller groups; each led by a local guide and Divemaster.

Yellowtail Surgeonfish
Hard corals and benthic animals dominated the coral reef, providing a strong base of nutrients and habitats for a wide array of creatures. Parrotfish grazed on the corals as scorpion fish, as still as stones, sought to blend into the rocky surroundings. Schools of king angelfish (Holacanthus passer) and Yellowtail surgeonfish (Prionurus laticlavius) filled my vision.

Barracuda

As I floated weightlessly away from the coral, I found myself in a school of barracuda. Usually curious of shiny objects, such as diving gear, these barracuda seemed unperturbed by my presence.

Manta Ray

Manta Rays glided overhead, following the ocean current in search of plankton and other microscopic food items.

Octopus

A careful eye could spot an octopus hiding in the small holes of the reef, awaiting nightfall. Occasionally, we would come across a white tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) resting amidst the rocks and corals. Non-threatening, the shark would quickly swim away in search of a new resting spot if disturbed by the oncoming group of divers.

White-tipped Reef Shark

Sharks are an important part of the marine ecosystem in the Galapagos, and the main draw for tourists and snorkelers. As we soon discovered and Islands Wolf and Darwin, the Galapagos is abundant with schooling hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, and even whale sharks. Although it is illegal to fish them, the abundance of sharks and competitive nature of the economy has prompted illegal shark finning.

This was one of the few underlying conservation issues I discovered at nature’s paradise in the Galapagos.

Moray eel

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 20 m / 66′

Dive Time: 60 min

Visibility: 6 – 12 m

Temperature: 19 – 21 C

A World Within Itself: The Galapagos Day 1

Originally Written October 2012

Day 1: Arrival to San Cristobal

Conservemos Lo Nuestro

After a long journey from JFK in New York, to Miami, Florida, and then to Guayaquil, Ecuador – we had finally arrived to our port of departure: San Cristobal.

In total we were eleven divers of the Cousteau Divers Expedition, led by Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of Jacques Cousteau. We would be departing for an eight-day voyage on sea to discover the wonders of the Galápagos Islands.

The first underwater encounter occurred just minutes from San Cristobal on the Isla Lobos, a popular hangout for sea lions. Although it was just a short dive to test our diving abilities, we were accompanied by an overtly friendly sea lion.

Like a pet dog, the sea lion playfully swam through our group, contorting its body in unimaginable ways and blowing bubbles at us. Another sea lion soon joined and together, humans and animals, we tumbled through the waters.

Galapagos Sea Lion

Their behavior was so canine, so domestic, it was not hard to see how sea lions share the same genetic roots as domestic canines.

Afterwards, we returned to port to explore the local shops. It was hard to tell if the town was run by people or by sea lions, as the creatures slept on benches, blocked paths, and covered the beaches. Rather than react aggressively to the curious bystander, they seemed happy to pose and show off for the cameras, although a few recently awoken sea lions seemed less than amused by “intruders”.

This brief introduction to the immense biodiversity that awaited us in the Galapagos National Park motivated our team for the upcoming journey.

San Cristobal