Tag Archives: puerto madryn

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

Advertisements

Lonco: El Ex-Callejero

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.

Lonco en ruta
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.

Lonco en la playa
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.

IMG_0501
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.

DSC_0335
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 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.

Lonco en Buenos Aires

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. 

Lonco en Nueva York
Special thanks to:

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.

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.