Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Having a whale of a time

For many, the word “Patagonia” conjures up images of glaciers, lakes and mountains, but our journey through this region so far has shown us a different aspect of this southern region of Argentina (which also extends into Chile) – the Patagonian Steppe.  This area, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Andes mountains to the west is also known as the Patagonian Desert, is the 7th largest desert in the world.  With an annual rainfall of only 200mm (compared with over 6,000mm in parts of the Andes), the landscape is dominated by endless grassy plains and small shrubs, with extensive grazing of cattle and sheep.  It is perhaps surprising then that within this environment sits the Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes which is considered to be Argentina’s premier wildlife experience.  And it certainly didn’t disappoint, providing us with a fantastic day of wildlife viewing under a brilliant blue sky.
Valdes Peninsula coastline
The roads through the reserve - plenty of wide open spaces
Starting out early on Saturday morning, our guide Martin and our driver Roberto picked us up from our hostel and we drove to the reserve.  Martin was a fantastic guide – plenty of information delivered with a touch of humour – and we all started to learn more about the flora and fauna of the reserve. 
As well as being a wildlife reserve, the peninsula is also grazing land, and the wildlife co-exists with sheep, cattle and horses.  In order to allow the wildlife to cross farm boundaries, the fences have been specially designed – slightly lower than standard fences to allow the guanacos (llama-like animals) to jump the fences, which they can do from a standing start, and with a slightly larger gap between the ground and the first string of wire, to allow the ground animals to pass underneath.
Guanacos - tony
We stopped briefly at the information centre where we were able to see the skeleton of one of the reserve’s major drawcards, the Southern Right Whale.
Colin & Heather with the Southern Right Whale skeleton
From there we headed out into the reserve to Caleta Valdes where there is a colony of Magellanic penguins.  It was lovely to watch them interact with each other, and they didn’t appear to mind our presence at all, watching us with equal interest.
Who doesn't love penguins?


Cousin to the albatross, this was one big bird!
Continuing through the reserve, we headed for the southernmost point, Punta Delgada, which is home to a permanent colony of elephant seals.  Although the males are currently out at sea, the females and their calves can be found lazing on the shore.  These huge creatures can reach 5m in length and several tonnes in weight.  Their name comes from the large “nose” on the males which are used as megaphones to allow them to call to the females and intimidate the other males so as to secure their harem during breeding season.
Punta Delgada lighthouse
Elephant seals
Elephant seal - tony
Hard to capture in a photograph the noise that accompanies this seal's open mouth! 
Stunning coastline
Heading down to the beach
group - tony
Angela, Steve, Karen, Heather, Anthony and Neil

Nope, they aren't rocks on the water's edge!


The seals weren’t the only attraction, with Mikkel continuing his wildlife capture and release programme with a lizard, and Robin spotting a huge tarantula!

While driving through the reserve, we also found a mara (an endemic rodent), a Darwin’s Rhea (similar to an emu or ostrich), and a burrowing owl.
Mother and baby Mara
Mother and baby Rhea, superb camouflage
The burrowing owl comes in to land
The park’s main attraction from July to December are the Southern Right Whales who come into the protected bays around the peninsula to breed.  Although they can often be seen from land, the best way to see these magnificent and endangered creatures is on a boat trip and so most of the group headed out on a large zodiac to find the whales.  The weather could not have been more perfect, with no wind (Patagonia is known for its wind!), and so the seas were calm and the water clarity amazing.
Just a few minutes after we set off, a pod of dolphins came up to the boat, their grace in the water quite incredible to watch.
Boarding the zodiac on the beach, before the boat is pushed into the water by a tractor 
Playful dolphins

Continuing further into the bay, we found what we were looking for, whales!  The mothers and their calves treated us to quite a show – “sailing” (the mother inverts herself leaving her tail above the water), diving and approaching the boat.  It was an amazing experience, even for those who have been whale watching before, and topped off a fantastic day in the reserve.

Steve brings out the big guns
The v-shaped blow that is unique to the Southern Right Whale
The massive head of a mother whale
Just doing a bit of sailing

KLA whale photo_fix
Time to dive
Duncan puts the Odyssey stamp on our Valdes tour bus
The next day Francois and Tony went diving and snorkelling with sea lions, while others explored the town, visited the Eco Centro or relaxed on the beach.
The Welsh settlers originally lived in these caves on the shore of the bay 
Heather and Lisa test the water
The Eco Centro
Then it was time to say goodbye to the hot weather for a while as we head south towards the glaciers, lakes and stunning vistas of the Andes mountains.  Another overnight bus, this time with bingo (a great way to test our knowledge of Spanish numbers!) and a glass or two of red wine, took us to Rio Gallegos, and then another bus took us on the (relatively) short hop to El Calafate where we are today.  While on the overnight bus we received the fantastic news that our expedition vehicle, Ithaca, has finally made it onto South American soil!  In only a few days we should all be reunited – we can’t wait!!
Vanessa and Lisa enjoying a bit of bus luxury

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