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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

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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