Tag Archives: conservation

Telsen: La Vida Solitaria y Hermosa

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

Telson

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).

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

Telson

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.

Telson

Some photographs from the Estancia

Telson

Telson

Telson

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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

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.

South of the Equator: Galapagos Day 6

Day 6: Cousin Rock

Sunrise South of the Equator

Our diving in paradise quickly came to an end, and we started the journey south. Crossing the equator, we awoke to a different world. Restful marine iguanas and alert Galapagos penguins shared the sun spread across the rocky side of the island. In the shallow waters, illuminated by the sun, we could see hundreds of sea turtles seeking that sacred warmth.

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The Dive masters recommended a heavier wetsuit – our days of tropical diving in the Galapagos were at an end. Bracing ourselves with hoods, gloves, and 7mm suits, we jumped into the icy waters.

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The world had changed. Yellow hard corals stood out amongst a desolate landscape. The colors were duller and the animals were scarcer. Clinging to an anchor, a few sea horses. ‘Hopping’ through the sand, hardly distinct in color, a batfish.

Mola mola

And then a dark shadow. Obscuring the sun rays, we looked to see the quickly retreating form of a mola mola. In this low visibility, and with its speed, I found that, unlike the whale sharks, catching up with these large, bony fish would be a waste of precious air. Fortunately, with patience, we continued to see these huge, and incredibly strange, creatures. Occasionally one would pause, turning on his side with his mouth towards the surface, in hopes of attracting fish to participate in this “cleaning station”.

Galapagos Penguin & Iguana

As we neared the island, a quick flash of movement passed us. And then another. Black and white. These little penguins were too fast to capture in camera, much less within the limits of our human vision.

Flightless Cormorant

Another flightless bird also investigated our strange group of bubble-breathing humans. The flightless cormorant, a special variety of a common marine bird which has lost its ability to fly in an attempt to venture the seas among penguins and fish.

Blue-footed booby
Although not endemic, the well-known Blue-footed Booby is another symbol of the Galapagos Islands. We found them decorating the island rocks as we took a short tour in one of the zodiacs, catching our first “top-side” glimpses of marine wildlife such as seabirds.

Mexican Horned Shark

Certainly, the loss of warm waters was made up for by the strange assortment of creatures here, many endemic to the Galapagos Islands.

Seastar

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 Days 3 – 4

Originally Written October 2012

Day 3: Darwin’s Arch

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Darwin’s Arch initiated another breath-taking series of adventures. Since the beginning of our journey, the dive masters spoke of seeing Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus). The largest fish in the sea, these gentle giants actually feed on plankton and other small organisms. The thought of seeing one was well beyond the scopes of my imagination, but much at the heart of my deepest desires.

Green Sea Turtle
The Islands had spoiled us – we had grown accustomed to seeing fleets of hammerhead sharks, lurking moray eels, sociable sea turtles, and schools of fish. On my previous dive trips in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida coast, I considered it great luck to see just one sea turtle, or one shark, or one school of fish. Our eyes searched the blue for more, for the greatest prize yet – the Whale Shark.

It happened so fast – I almost forgot why I was being pushed forward, but responded automatically with an additional effort to propel myself forward into the blue, leaving the safety of the reef.

And then it all made sense. The frantic motions of the dive master. The effort our small group exerted into exploring the unknown ocean blue. White dots began to materialize in front of me and there she was – a whale shark nearly the size of the bus!

Whale Shark and Diver
The moment was so fleeting, gone before I could catch up with her. Fortunately, I would have a second chance (and many more). For now, we returned to the boat, where hot chocolate, warm towels, and excited exchanges of photographs and stories awaited us.

Silky Shark
In between dives, we snorkeled with silky sharks. Without our clunky scuba gear, we were more like awkwardly swimming and free diving sea lions, driven by curiosity to venture close to the equally curious sharks. Having never snorkeled before (a shock, given my enthusiastic entrance into the world of scuba diving), my skills were untailored and yet I still managed to find myself among five circling sharks. One swam by, pierced by a hook with a lengthy fishing line still attached, trailing along like some tattered streamer. A few others were decorated with similar signs of accidental, or failed, fishing attempts.

Silky Sharks
Unlike the hammerheads, these sharks moved with purpose and intent to check out these strange, fumbling creatures on the water’s surface. In the background, a sea turtle gulped for air, unnoticed by the sharks. Although not territorial or aggressive, like bull sharks, the silky sharks do have a tendency to check out what may be edible. In my case, this led to a five minute experience both exhilarating and slightly terrifying. But rather than instilled a sense of fear, I gained a newfound respect for these efficient predators, sleek and streamlined in their movements.

Another top predator of the sea soon appeared in our second dive. In an effort to encounter whale sharks, we ventured into the blue, keeping the distant view of the reef to our left while our eyes strained into the vastness in hopes of seeing those white spots.

Tuna School
Instead, we saw a shimmering light, moving as one patterned unit. It was a school of tuna – another popular fishery target and food item for consumers worldwide. Yellowfin, Big Eye, and Skipjack are the main species targeted for the fishery.

Originally, foreign fleets were allowed access to these fisheries, even in the marine reserve. Since a Special Law passed in 1998, this has no longer been the case (A Brief History of the Tuna Fishery in the Galapagos). However, the fishery continues to exist outside of the marine reserve, and, occasionally and illegally, within it. Nonetheless, government efforts are striving to limit this fishery to account for the overfished nature of tuna worldwide.

Bottle-nosed Dolphin

Another curious megafauna approached us during a dive. Usually, we could just but hear their echolocation against the steady current and sway of the waves above. Occasionally, their quickly moving shapes could be seen in the blue. But never did one venture close enough to clearly photograph, much less stay to investigate these strange creatures exploring its home. However, this bottle nosed dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) circled our group and stayed at our level, giving us each a good look over, before joining his pod in the shadows.

Sunset at Darwin Island
And so we pressed on. Remembering the evolutionary beauty of what we saw and looking forward to new and familiar sites in the days that followed.

Dive Plan

Max Depth: 30 m / 100′

Dive Time: 50 min

Visibility: 10 – 18 m

Temperature: 22-25 C