Penguins in the Desert

Close your eyes and think about penguins.  I’m guessing the picture in your head was some combination of snow capped mountains, glaciers, ice bergs, the ocean, “Happy Feet” or maybe the tuxedo you wore on your wedding day.  It’s not likely you thought of sand dunes, hot sun or viciously territorial birds measuring a whopping 15 inches tall.  In Peninsula Valdes, that is exactly what we saw.  It surprised us too and the verdict is still out whether we will choose to destroy our picturesque belief that penguins only live where it’s -30C.

Leaving Sierra de la Ventana on the rickety old 1960s, 2 hour late train, we rolled into Bahia Blanca with plenty of time to walk around this mid-sized semi-picturesque city.   The train ride itself though was a bit of an adventure.  Contrary to the first class, ultra smooth buses we’d experienced thus far in Argentina, the train was cheap, slow and filled with not so fortunate Argentineans.  The toilet was a real treat.  Imagine first, no seat.  Then imagine looking into that “toilet” and seeing the train tracks whizzing by below you.    Finally, look for the flush button;  there isn’t one (why would you need one right?) and keep in mind that it is a VERY bouncy ride.  That was a first for both of us. Pleasant experience right?  The one benefit to this archaic system of disposal of human excretions was the comfort of a toilet that smelled more of burnt engine oil rather than the usual urine.  The ride was bumpy and waving, but we managed to nap away our fogginess created by a late night and very early morning.

After the day in Bahia Blanca, playing cards alongside the retired generation of male Argentineans in the city square, we boarded an overnight bus to Puerto Madryn.  After 10 hours on a night bus with broken sleep, there wasn’t much else we could focus on except finding the next bus out to Peninsula Valdes and finding a reasonable cup of coffee.  With our mission accomplished, we returned to the bus station with plenty of time to spare for our 2 hour journey to the Peninsula.   By this time, it had started to sink in just how massive Argentina is.  It had taken us a train, an overnight bus, another bus and 15 hours to move 1000km, less than an inch on our map. There is so much to see, and unless we spend one day in each spot and half of our time in the country on a bus, we are going to have to make some tough decisions on where to go.

Peninsula Valdes is a mecca for wildlife.  Although we missed whale watching season (southern right whales breed there from June – December), we were lured in by the promise of penguins, sea lions, elephant seals, various bird species and a chance to see orcas.  The peninsula is 3625 km2, which makes a tour or a car vital to get to see everything.   Initially we had entertained the idea of hitchhiking from spot to spot to view wildlife, but based on the “it is impossible to hitchhike here” statement from the Lonely Planet, we decided to fork out the pesos for a tour and stay only one night.  During our one night stay, we could walk on our own was to a nearby sea lion colony. 

The 5km walk was easy and quick taking us to a bluff viewpoint over the ocean where we stood and admired the character of these amazing animals.   It was different than what we had experienced in Cabo de Polonio.  Though we couldn’t get as close, the sea lions here were much more active and entertaining.  We stayed for nearly an hour watching pups play together, mom’s crawl up the cliff from the ocean to join the rest of the colony and males roar for their territory.

Mom crawling up to shore

Nearing sunset, we decided to try our luck at hitching back to P.Piramides.  So much for guidebooks.  Out of three cars that came past, two of them offered us rides, a Chilean and an Argentine combined rides for our trip right back to our posada. 

We were set for our full day tour of the peninsula.  We were glad that we weren’t too stingie to pay for the tour since the wind blew so hard all day that it nearly took us off our feet.  It made wildlife viewing and photography a bit challenging, not to mention very sandy.  The car provided a much needed break from the sandstorms.

Our first stop was the penguins.  I’ve been fascinated by these birds since seeing March of the Penguins.  I’m not sure whether it’s their heroic effort to protect their single egg under the harshest of conditions, or the amusement I get in knowing that humans aren’t the only creatures on earth that choose a mate for life.  We’ve made the connection between this monogamy and the significance of a penguin-suit (tuxedo).  The nickname isn’t only about a man looking like a penguin in a tux, but that most men wear a tux on their wedding day, and on this day they have chosen to commit themselves to one partner for the rest of their life – a commitment penguins also make when they choose a mate.  The only reason a penguin couple would ever separate is if reproduction is unsuccessful.  The divorce rate could be significantly decreased if we followed “suit.”

Without the wind, the temperature would have been nearly 30 degrees.  Not what we expected for our first penguin encounter.  We too expected snow and ice, not sand and sun.  But these magellanic penguins prefer moderate climates.  Watching parents protect their nest, or play with their friends in the ocean was enough amusement to keep us happy for the rest of the day.  But there was more to come.

observing the penguins

Our next stop was to view the elephant seals, which wasn’t nearly as interesting since they were too far away and, well, if you know anything about elephant seals…they like their sunbathing time.  We ended our day with a stop at another sea lion colony living on the most northern point of the peninsula.  This is the perfect beach for orcas to hunt.  As sea lion pups become strong enough to enter the water (mid March), the local orca pods come in for the kill.  They have it down to a system.  Out of the 4 pods of 7-10 orcas each, only 3 are experts in the hunting technique used here at Punta Norte.  The skilled orca will beach itself into the colony, causing utter chaos.  Out of fear, the pups will scramble into the perceived safety of the ocean, followed by their protective mothers where other members of the orca pod await dinner.  Sad if you like sea lions, brilliant if you’re fascinated by dolphins; by the way, orcas are not whales, they’re dolphins.  We didn’t see a high tide attack that day, or a single orca, but we had gotten our fill of sea lions and penguins. 

Sea lions at Punta Norte

Elephant Seals enjoying the sun

Back in Puerto Madryn, we began our plans to get to Antarctica, where we knew whales awaited us.  Our first step was to stock up on enough food to last for our 30 ½ hour bus journey south to Ushuaia and exchange our hammocks for fleece. With the exception of an abrupt morning police check wake up and having our fruit stolen by the Chilean border police (despite declaring them), the ride to the ferry to get to Tierra De Fuego was uneventful.   The ride got much more interesting after that.  We spotted Commerson’s dolphins from the ferry and pink flamingos in the wild from the bus.  Super cool.  I always thought pink flamingos lived where it was warm.  It’s the tail of the summer here today with temperatures between -1 and 10C.  This is a big change from the beach.  So, here we are today at the end of the world.

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