Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Puerto Piramides and Peninsula Valdez


My intention for riding to Puerto Madryn was to visit Puerto Piramides and the Peninsula Valdez. The Peninsula Valdez is known for being a prime location to observe marine life such as sea lions, elephant seals, fur seals, southern right whales, dolphins and orcas.

All I really wanted to see was the orcas.

In March and April the orcas are known to hunt sea lions and elephant seals in an area of the Peninsula Valdez called Punta Norte. At times, they beach themselves on shore to attack their prey. Pods teach their young how to hunt in this manner. It is the only place in the world where this style of orca hunting occurs.

It was the first week of May, so it was rather late in the season to observe this behavior. It was late in the sea lion breeding season and late in the orca migration season. I still thought that it was worth the effort to ride across Argentina for the chance to see this phenomena. I was hoping that everything would come together.

I arrived in Puerto Piramides and planned to stay for a few days. It was a pretty small town made up of two cross streets. The population of Puerto Piramides is supposedly around 200 people. The population of the entire Peninsula Valdez is supposedly around 400 people.

On my first full day on the peninsula I thought that I'd take a ride around the area to familiarize myself with the roads. The roads were all ripio (gravel). The peninsula may not look so big, but it is about 1,400 square miles.

 
Here is a short 45 second video of riding the ripio on the Peninsula Valdez. About 30 seconds into the video I pass some sheep on the right and some guanacos on the left.
Along the road I came across quite a few guanacos.
Also, I came across this pond in which there were a few pink flamingos.
I reached Punta Norte after about an hour and a half of riding. It was already mid-day. Looking out over Punta Norte I caught a glimpse of the beach at low tide.
Carved into the coast were these channels. During the low tide the channels appeared to be like hundreds of little islands.
Some sea lions and seabirds were playing among the channels and looking for food. There were no signs of orcas. I had been told that they only approach the beach at high tide.
So I hopped on my bike and rode south along the peninsula. Not many people around.
I caught a glimpse of something splashing in the water. It was too far away to discern what it was. It could  have been a dolphin, whale or orca. I took this photo. Later when I looked at the photo on my computer and zoomed in I could tell that the dark object in the water was the fin of an orca.
I continued on my way. After an hour and a half of riding I reached Punta Coleta.
There were elephant seals lounging on the beach. Not much else going on.
It was getting late in the day, so I headed back toward Puerto Piramides. It would be another hour and a half of riding. The sun was starting to set in the west. Again, I had the road all to myself.
I made one last stop at a cove where a fairly large colony of sea lions were sunning themselves.
They were just doing what sea lions do...lying around doing nothing.
There was this one point jutting out from the cove. When the waves crashed into the point it made a dramatic splash.
This sea lion decided to go for a swim.
It slowly approached the edge of the cliff which was about 10 feet high.
Then plopped into the water.
It made a little splash and disappeared into the sea. It wasn't fancy, but effective I suppose.
It was getting late, the sun was almost over the horizon, so I returned to Puerto Piramides. In total, I rode about 130 miles (210 km) of ripio. I believe that the whole day I only saw three other vehicles on the road. I definitely felt like the peninsula was an isolated area.
It was the off-season for tourism and much of the town shut down pretty early. There was only one restaurant open. It only had six tables, a staff of two, but made really delicious pizza.
For a chance to see the orcas I would need to be at Punta Norte at high tide. I checked the tide charts online and high tide was forecast to be at 9am. It took 1:30 hours to ride from Puerto Piramides to Punta Norte. So, the next day I got up at 7am and left the hotel at 7:30am to ride back to Punta Norte. It was dark when I started. Luckily it was not too cold. It was a little tricky riding on the gravel in the dark, but I got accustomed to it. After about an hour there was sunlight. I arrived at Punta Norte at almost exactly 9am... just in time for high tide. And then I waited. I was surprised at how high the tide reached up the beach.
Looking south, this was low tide from the day before.
This was high tide.
Looking north, this was low tide from the day before
This was high tide. All of the channel islands were covered with water.
I waited and waited, but didn't see any orcas. I got a little bored, so I starting taking pictures of some little birds.
There wasn't anything else to do. I had been waiting around for about two hours... it was 11am. I was afraid that it was too late in the season.
Then off in the horizon I saw a spout. I used my zoom lens on my camera to see what it was.
Orcas! They came from the south and swam north along the beach. They were approaching the beach.
There were three orcas... an adult and two adolescents. They were cruising amazingly close to the beach...hunting. I believe that the adult was teaching the adolescents how to hunt sea lions in the shallows. The adult would chase a sea lion, then the adolescents would mimic the behavior.
This adult sea lion stayed in the water and appeared to be watching the orcas pass by until her pups could get out of the water.
It was intense. I don't know why this sea lion stayed so close to the water. The seabirds started following the orcas. I suppose that they knew that if the orcas were feeding... they might be able to pick up some scraps.
And it happened. I believe the adult caught a sea lion and chewed it up.
The sea birds dove into the water and picked up the pieces.
They passed right by a number of sea lions. Occasionally the orcas would go under the surface, chase sea lions and thrash about. This is a short 1 minute video showing the orcas hunting for sea lions. The sea birds are following the orcas hoping to pick up the scraps. 20 seconds into the video one sea lion is seen surfacing on the beach narrowly escaping. Another sea lion was not so lucky and became prey.
I watched the morbid spectacle for about an hour. The orcas made four passes along the length of the beach. They went north, then south, then north, then south. Then as quickly as they appeared... they disappeared into the deep water. Wow... did I really just witness that.
When I returned to my bike, this little critter was hanging about.
It's a Patagonian armadillo. Cute fellow... in a prehistoric kind of way. We have similar, but different, armadillos in Texas.
I also caught a glimpse of this Patagonia grey fox.

All in all, it was a pretty memorable experience.... traveling to the peninsula, scouting the area, riding the ripio, spotting some unusual wildlife and observing the orcas hunting. I definitely felt like I was out there. One park ranger said that I would have about a 3% chance of seeing orcas hunting so late in the season. Well, a slim chance is still a chance. Glad I took it. 


1 comment:

  1. I am glad you were able to see the Orca. Looks beautiful out there!

    ReplyDelete

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