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.
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.
Patagonia is a land governed by the wind. Its windswept terrain seems desolate at first glance, but to the trained eye there are oases of life, and remnants of life that once was.
Telsen lies two hours by rock and gravel west of Puerto Madryn. With the kilometer counter running, we had to follow a careful set of directions to learn where to turn to reach our destination – an Estancia of one of the family friends of the whale watching company I was working with.
Compared to the rocky cliffs and flat grazing lands of Peninsula Valdes, the land here seemed to finally take form into plateaus and peaks. A few trees dotted the desolate landscape and shrubs and bushes abound.
The few signs of human settlement were barbed wire fences delineating property and restraining sheep from wandering onto the roads – not that there were that many sheep to be concerned about. Whereas I had seen flocks of sheep littering the landscape of Peninsula Valdes, here only a few could be seen, and even fewer guanaco. I would soon find out why.
We finally arrived to our destination – a quaint, blue-roofed house accompanied by trademark accompaniments of life in el campo: a space for asado, one lonely, turning windmill, farming supplies…
Our hosts, dressed more traditionally than other Argentines I had met, greeted us in English and Spanish. They were eager to start our tour of their property, but only after sharing some mates and a quick snack.
Their property expanded across the region, encompassing plateaus, small oases of naturally occurring water, and petrified forests. The area was ripe with fossils and antiquities. Once traversed by the natives (Tehuelche o Mapuche), their arrowheads and other tools formed from smoothed rocks and petrified wood littered the landscape. Each rock seemed a unique combination of hues, from translucent “Tiger’s eye” to vibrant reds and oranges.
The petrified trees were even more impressive, and harkened to a time long before the passage of the natives. These timber giants were completely fossilized. The bases were nearly as tall as a short person (such as myself!). We could still count the rings and see the ridges, a testament to the living creatures they once were. Yet all of the wood and organic composition was now replaced with minerals, forever preserving its original form.
Also littering the landscape were more recent signs of now deceased life. Elongated skulls of guanaco and shorter skulls of sheep could be found throughout our hike. Some of the guanaco had become entangled in the barbed wire fences, the result of misjudging the fence’s height and becoming ensnared in its lower wiring. The sheep had met an equally tragic fate.
For six years, the land had been ruled by wind and drought. The family had lost nearly all of their sheep and the majority of their horses because of it. What was once their main livelihood had become unviable in a changing climate and rampant desertification.
The desertification of Patagonia is one of the more well-documented environmental problems of the region. Overgrazing combined with an arid climate and water-starved soils lead to degraded vegetation and a desert-like landscape.
When wool growers settled the region in the 19th century, they spurred this process through high numbers of grazing sheep, which reduced and degraded the region’s natural vegetation and foliage and depleted the little water that formed. As a result, sheep were in direct competition for scarce resources with natural wildlife, like the guanaco. They also became a prime target for predators like the puma.
On Peninsula Valdes, an otherwise protected and preserved natural protected area, sheep grazing still dominates the land. Although hunting of guanaco is illegal, it still occurs due to lack of oversight and enforcement. Although the Peninsula was not as affected by the drought and desert conditions as Telsen, the numbers of sheep raised on the Peninsula have noticeably declined over the years (according to locals).
In Telsen, a land far removed and remote from any civilization, the effects of the drought were more imminent and direct. Faced with the loss of a once reliable livelihood, this family is now searching for alternative forms of income.
Why did they invite us to their land? To see if it would be viable as an adventure tourism destination. Here, the low-budget backpacker or middle-income adventurer could experience the true “solitario” lifestyle of the Argentine gauchos. They had all the facilities in place – modest accommodations, grill spaces for asados, and an endless expanse of plateaus and petrified trees to hike and explore.
As if to signal the changing tide, and perhaps fortune, of the region – a light rain began to fall as we made it to the closest oasis to the estancia, with a single tree stretching upwards from the dry soil.
When we returned to the main building, our hosts had prepared an amazing dinner – curried chicken – and dessert – homemade dulce de leche ice cream and Banana’s fosters. With a final cup of coffee, we began our long journey home.
Some photographs from the Estancia
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.
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:
Originally written June – July 2013
A departure from the ocean to tell the story of a land companion found during my three month research stay in Patagonia.
Some days here feel like a combination of Homeward Bound and the Discovery Channel. As I walk along the beach, my newfound companion, a former street dog, and a pack of still independent street dogs race ahead. To my right I hear a powerful splash as a whale breaches near to shore. Closer to shore, a few whales linger in the shallows, their exhalations overpowering the gentle ocean waves.
It happened a few days ago. While I am often followed by a stray dog on my walks through town, none has ever stayed longer than a few blocks, soon off to find a free meal or to meet another stray. Yet one day, as I returned from CENPAT, I found a large, German shepherd mix crying in front of our apartments. Most street dogs are independent, street-savvy creatures. While they enjoy the company of humans, they are equally happy chasing compatriots along the beach and down the streets. Occasionally, a fight breaks out. This abandoned dog bore two fresh wounds on his head, a sign of a recent scrap with another dog. He was skinny, but overall healthy. He didn’t have the independent cadence of a street dog; instead he seemed lost and confused. Likely dropped off here with well wishes from an owner whose house he outgrew, or perhaps strayed too far from home, unable to find the route back.
At first, I thought he would leave, like the other dogs. Find some other street to call his own, or take to the beach. But the next morning, I found him sleeping in front of our small set of houses. He seemed at a loss of what to do and, in turn, began to follow the neighbor’s dog and me around town. I tried to discourage him, tell him to leave, but when he chased the car I was in down several blocks as we tried to go to an asado, I knew it was too late. The following day, as I left for a scuba diving trip, he chased the boat into the water, crying from the beach. When I returned four hours later, I found him resting in front of the scuba shop. Ya esta… he was my new dog.
For a few weeks he didn’t have a name and his collar was a red lanyard lent to me by my neighbor. She recommended I adopt him and, when I asked how that was possible, she put the lanyard securely around his neck and told me he was now my dog. They say Argentina es un pais generoso, and I suppose it really is – never have I seen the acquirement of a dog happen so easily (or affordably). Even the veterinarian visits were affordable – U$S 20 for his vaccinations and U$S 50 to neuter him. This may explain why I am still in a state of shock after a $300 “routine checkup” and vaccine at the local veterinarian in New York…
One evening, as I was conducting interviews in the hostel down the street from my home and the dog was waiting outside, an elderly couple asked me if I had named him yet. They began to discuss Mapuche words as possible names and recommended Lonco, the name of the tribal chieftain. I let the name sit on my tongue for a few more days before finally deciding that it was perfect – a name from the region, a name evoking leadership and power, a name similar to lindo and loco, my two most frequently used adjectives for the calm-natured, but easily upset, Lonco.
Over the next few months, Lonco became my steadfast companion. We would run along the beach, eat empanadas by the rambla, and spend evenings drinking té with my neighbor and her dog Isabella. When I left for Puerto Piramides, my neighbor would watch after him. Upon my return, Lonco was sure to tell me how upset he was at being left (although my neighbor assured me he enjoyed his afternoons with Isabella and meat scraps from the local butcher). Tourists would ask me for directions and I began to feel more integrated into my small house and community.
So when it came time to leave my newfound home and local family, I decided to bring a piece of home back to the states with me. A quick trip to the vet for a travel certificate, signed by the SENASA office in Puerto Madryn, and 12 pesos per kilo at the airport brought Lonco with me to Buenos Aires. From there, we obtained an international travel certificate from another local vet, certified by SENASA in San Isidro and the Ezeiza Airport, spent a few hours of photocopies and verification at the American Airlines check-in, paid $175, and arrived to JFK in New York City on August 22. Just in time for my 90-day visa to expire.
It was a long journey, from the flat coast of Patagonia to the humid tropics of Buenos Aires to the mountainous terrain of upstate New York, but it fits the nomadic, street dog lifestyle Lonco and I have become accustomed to. For now, we will take a break and pass the days in the forests and mountains of upstate New York, dreaming of the day we return to the beaches and desert landscape of Puerto Madryn, and to the sound of whales exhaling along the beach as we run with sand in between our toes.
My dad, for watching Lonco while I am at Yale and unable to keep him in my apartment.
Milagros, my wonderful neighbor, for keeping a watchful eye on Lonco during my overnight stays in Puerto Piramides
Jackie, for offering her home to Lonco and me and helping me get Lonco fully certified and ready to internationally travel during my three days in Buenos Aires.
Miguel, for helping with transportation of Lonco and his extra large kennel in Puerto Madryn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dear Inner Ocean Explorers,
As a child, you read tales of an undersea world, with charismatic whales, lurking sharks, and an abundance of colorful and strange fish. In your sleep you could hear the gentle pitch and roll of the ocean waves as they struck the shoreline. You dreamt of swimming with the mermaids accompanied by an escort of gregarious dolphins.
You thought, maybe, one day, you would study these creatures. Maybe you would join Jacques Cousteau on his latest underwater expedition. Maybe you would leave on a ship, spending your days at sea. Maybe you would even study marine biology at some coastal university.
I once dreamt these dreams too, sometimes I still do. My childhood memories are filled with finding fascinating creatures in the tide pools of the northeast, seeing friendly sea otters in Monterey Bay, and watching humpback whales majestically breach off of Cape Cod. I was certain I would be a marine biologist, or maybe a Diplomat.
But, like many of you reading this, I didn’t go to the university to study marine biology. Instead, the career of diplomacy seemed to dictate my future. I spent three years studying policy and economics. I didn’t think it would ever be possible to integrate my studies and my passion for the sea.
I was never so wrong.
Sparked by the recent BP Oil Disaster, I was intrigued by management issues of marine resources, from fisheries to whale watching. I explored these issues during six months of study in Argentina, travelling to a coastal town in Patagonia to talk with locals about their environmental problems.
In Patagonia, the salty sea breeze filled my senses. The surrounding desert landscape belied the bounty of life that sought refuge on that small peninsula – penguins, killer whales, elephant seals, and southern right whales. In one adventure, I found myself sitting on the beach, eating a piece of pizza, and in the company of southern right whales less than 100 feet away! They rolled and frolicked in the shallows, exposing their entire length. In the far distance, whenever the wind picked up and stirred the otherwise calm waters, they breached and leapt out of the water in a spectacle that outshone any SeaWorld performance.
Then the pieces began coming together – I found that I could use economics and policy to better protect our oceans. I worked with local environmental non-profits in New Orleans, and I started scuba diving.
Since then, it’s been a salty adventure, full of economic theory, policy writing, reading, and, of course, undersea adventures.
Everyone finds their inner ocean explorer in his or her own way. Your inner ocean explorer is hiding in watching ocean documentaries, in participating in environmental campaigns with just a photograph to help protect sharks, in choosing the seafood you eat wisely (and learning why), and in using reusable bags over plastic.
In each of us there is a childhood ocean explorer and a gnawing curiosity to dive into the ocean, to feel the salt water against our skin, and to befriend a sea turtle.
My blog invites you to let this inner ocean explorer reach out and discover the underwater world. My photographs and videos will show what you may not have the time (for now) to see for yourself. My discussions will do their best to convey scientific information on marine conservation in an engaging and open manner.
It’s never too late to start diving, to start caring, to start learning. I hope this platform will offer a starting place to inspire you to learn more, and to get involved in these issues.
We all have our priorities and goals for the New Year. As I strive to write a better blog, I encourage you to find your inner ocean explorer.
I invite your questions, your curiosities, and your thirst to learn more.
All that remains is a question:
What’s stopping you from releasing your inner ocean explorer?