Day 292: Puerto Piramides – Argentina – April 5th

The other main attraction of Puerto Madryn is the nature reserve of the Peninsula Valdes. The park is about an hour’s drive away from town, and is pretty desolate except for a small town and a few estancia (ranches) for tourists, it is mostly just land that’s blocked off from the public as it is mostly owned privately. Sheeps and guanaco roam the fields, and the wide dirt roads connect you around the peninsula and towards the Atlantic coast. Along the coast is where the magical appeal of this peninsula is as it is a hotbed for wildlife searching, including whales, sea elephants/lions raising pups, penguins and orcas!

As usual, the park entrance was staffed with tremendously helpful and patient rangers who can tell you exactly where to go, when to go and how. High tides are at 6:30pm at one spot, 5:30pm at the other so we should time our visits accordingly. Why? Because at high tide it’s the best time to spot Orcas beaching. This is the only spot in the world where these orcas have learned how to beach themselves onto shore to grab a few seal pups, then swim back into the ocean! CRAZY smart animals!

So hitting a less popular spot first, it was a rather unimpressive sight as the colony of sea elephants. You hear them a lot earlier than seeing them as they are hiding underneath the cliffs of the viewpoint. There weren’t many sea elephants at all, and the cool and massive males have already returned to sea, leaving us with a few pups and their nursing mothers. Not as interesting as we’d like watching marine mammals taking naps on the beach.

One cool spot is the supposed inspiration for the “snake swallowing an elephant whole” gig in the amazing The Little Prince, as the author as a pilot who flew pioneering flights up and down the Argentine coast. It is extremely impressive to see an island that looks explicitly like a hat, and then visualize it as being an elephant inside a snake. Awesome.

Most of the viewpoints now were empty, but that’s not important as we didn’t really come for colonies of sea lions or penguins, but rather the hoping we can catch a rare glimpse of orcas at their best: being predators. We arrived an hour before high tide, and by the swarm of people around the viewpoints this was the place to be. Numerous people were carrying their expensive camera equipment around, idly chatting and waiting for the moment. Massive tripods were already in place at the optimal spots, and we actually met a middle-aged man from HK who’s been here for 3 weeks, and only saw orcas hunting last night. Today, everyone is hoping for a repeat performance……

As if on cue, at around 6:30pm, the orcas started surfacing near the beach, as clueless sea lion pups swam in shallow waters while their mothers lay there napping. HORRIBLE PARENTHOOD! This was sort of like watching Jaws, except you don’t have scary musical scores coupled with awesome artistic direction, it really is just nature at it’s most interesting ways. The orcas swam around for a tense 10minutes and before you know it…. WOOSH! A massive orca (supposedly the mother of a few pups) crashes out of a wave, and within the splashes of water emerges three REALLY FUCKING SCARED pups running for their lives. It was amazing because a couple minutes earlier, the pups were still swimming happily even as the orcas were within 10m or so. We took a cool video which is too large to upload, but looking at it shows no conclusive evidence that pups were killed in this exercise! Just a mere practice run.

The funniest part during this was when the orcas came, and the HK man with his 200mm lens fought for space behind us whispered, “Ai, let’s get the big one out.” (in Cantonese). So I heard this, took a split second away from the waters to see what he was doing….and BAM. Probably the biggest lens we’ve seen, about the size of a scuba tank? Haha…hilarious.

Everyone was excited at what we just witnessed, and people with the massive Canon 600mm cannons (no love for Nikons. Not one bit!) were happiest of all as their weeks of waiting finally resulted into a clear set of pictures. From seeing the orcas to disappearing back into the ocean, it was barely a 20-30min ordeal, and we were DAMN lucky to have seen them beach, and to have taken a video at that! These people waited 3+weeks for this, we barely waited 2hrs!

Back at the hostel, we cooked up a storm while the owners brought along all their friends and had a nice BBQ. They were all workers at the nearby hotels, and one guy who spoke some English was talking to us, saying that the BBC had a full crew of 6 here, along with miniature submarines and helicopters to do the filming! He says they come every year for 2 weeks, starting at 4:30am and returning at 8pm… rain or shine! Next time we watch any of those wildlife documentaries, we would have a new found respect for the people that made it all happen. Tough job.

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