The northern side of Patagonia is usually not the first place that tourists visit, but it is definitely worth to come here after you have seen your glaciers and Alpine views in the very south! We spent two days around Trelew, our objective here was to go to Valdes peninsula, the UNESCO heritage site famous for it’s marine animal diversity. We visited the area with the Latvian tour agency “Dabas tūres” (www.dabastures.lv) that specializes in bird watching and nature tours for small groups (6-8 people) accompanied by a professional nature guide.
We head to the slightly warmer city of Trelew. It is an enormous, flat plain that stretches as far as you can see. The road is mostly straight as well, just in a few places in suddenly turns and then goes back to the original direction. We also see other animals here – if the first guanaco in El Calafate was such an experience, then now we see them everywhere.
Our first stop is Golfo Neuvo, and here in Los Piramides port we board a boat. It is very hard to call it a port, as actually it is a tractor pushing the boat inside the water in a small trailer.
This area is suitable for whale watching in October and November, and usually you can see the female whales with 4-5 month old baby whales here. The mothers are training the little ones to nurse while swimming and dive deep, preparing them for the long journey ahead.
There are certain safety conditions boats must oblige – as not running the engines near the animals and only six tour operators are allowed to do the tours. Our guide is also a researcher and whale photographer. He is very knowledgeable about these animals and tells us a great deal about them, such as that these whales are considered to be among the most primitive whales due to the way they feed.
The animals look quite different than we expected, as they have formations on their head that are as unique as fingerprints and they can be distinguished by those. Surprisingly, there are more and more whales coming here – but unfortunately because other nursery areas have become unsuitable for them. These whales were nearly hunted out due to their behavior – they are not afraid of humans at all, swimming freely around the boats and coming to surface to breath. This is also where the name of the whale – Southern Right Whale – comes from, as it is “the right” whale to kill.
While we wait for the first whale to appear, we are all very excited but also worried – will we see one? The guide tells us not to worry, as we will definitely see at least one! And soon enough we notice a large whale with a smaller baby. We spend some time observing their behavior, but then the guide tells us that these whales are a bit less playful than they could be, so we go looking for another couple, and I get lucky – I notice the whales in the distance and show them to the guide, feeling very proud of myself! An hour passes very quickly and soon enough the tractor is back with the trailer at the shore, the boat expertly sliding in the trailer and we get pulled out. The beach looks like there was never any boat – just a few marks in the sand!
In our quick run to the bus, we get so much sand in our eyes, ears and hear, that even the lunch later tastes of sand! But overall, this is a good place to eat for those who like seafood – clams, shrimp, calamari and so much more! And the scenery around is beautiful as well, all the sandy hills covered in pink flowers!
Sea Lions and Sea Elephants
Our next stop is to see sea lions and sea elephant colony. The first place where we meet them, they are quite much lower under us, as we are on a platform. From here we can observe in awe how they climb up relatively steep cliffs. Sea lions are relatively smaller, but sea elephants are quite big – the males weight up to 4 tons, and female can reach 800 kg. The cubs are born at 44 kg, and within the first 3 weeks gain weight and soon are 120 kg! The animals have to be very careful of orcas, as they attack the babies, so often can be seen near areas with low cliffs deeper in the water.
As we drive on the road near the shore, our new guide Armando shows us fossils – seashells older than 23 million years. It seems incredible that something this old can be preserved this well!
The scenery in Valdes looks very much alike, as we drive and drive deeper in. But there is incredible diversity in these plains. We see pygmy owls, tinamous and even the local rhea – the males sometimes can be seen taking care of as many as 50 chicks! Our driver is amazing at spotting animals far in the distance and shows us parrots and even maras – local rodents who are famous symbols of Patagonia and cannot be seen anywhere else in the world!
These look very cute but get scared quickly, so we we actually get to see how one is running in the front of our car at 40 km/h for several hundred of meters until it finally jumps inside the bushes. We also see Argentine cowboys – gaucho – for the first time. When everyone wants to take a quick picture and we open the windows in the bus, we get a mouthful of sand! Sitting in a comfortable bus you quickly forget of the nature outside.
The Most Beautiful Quiet Beach and Looking for Magellanic Penguins
The Quiet Colony of Sea Elephants
When we are not too far from Punta Tombo, we make a turn to a quiet beach and see one of the nicest places during our trip. In a nearly deserted beach, where there is only us and a couple French camper vans, we see a colony of sea elephants, not disturbed by anyone or anything. You can come up really close to these enormous animals (but you should keep a distance of 3 m and never ever go between them).
They are so incredibly cute! Some are scratching their bellies, others are making noises and all of them look like they are smiling. But if you do come too close, mothers get worried and start making a hissing-growling sound at you, and suddenly you see the red in their eyes. You must keep your distance! They may seem harmless, but they can be very fast on land as well.
The Awkward Penguins in Suits
Our last stop is the Magellanic penguin colony, largest at the Atlantic shores and thousands of birds nest here every year. As soon as we exit the bus, we see the first nest – right next to the pathway! There is a hole under the bush and a penguin inside, breathing heavily, as it is too hot.
Some penguins have nests under bushes, others, in plain sight. Some bushes are like a communal flat – with six nests under it! The ones under the bushes are considered safer, as there are seagulls patrolling above our heads, looking for unsupervised nests. Soon we see a seagull carrying an egg and another drinking from it on the ground. With a penguin standing next to it, minding his own eggs and completely ignoring the bird. The nests also get attacked by foxes, but if one comes at penguin, he can make a lethal stab with its beak. So only if the penguin has left, the eggs are exposed. The penguins watch their eggs in turns, but we do see a few nests not guarded by birds. There is ongoing research in this colony, many nests are marked with colorful bows, and a lot has been discovered about these birds in this breeding area! For example, the research suggests penguins live at least until 25, so even occasionally lost eggs are not an issue.
Whenever a penguin is crossing the road to get down to the water, everyone stops and observes them – they look so strange, trying to walk! It seems unreal that this clumsy “form” a bird has been the most advantageous form in evolution. When the birds get to water, they look exactly the same as other birds. But they do look elegant when they are right at the shore, in small groups, almost as if discussing something!
I could never imagine that one can come this close to a penguin, sea elephant or sea lion in the wild! They are there, on the beach, living their lives and not being disturbed by the humans at all! We got lucky that we had such knowledgeable guides – Armando could answer every question we had about birds, the driver of our bus had eyesight of a hawk, noticing even smallest movement in the bushes and showing us animals, and Ilze could show us the views that we found beautiful and unusual, coming from Latvia!
We are thankful to “Dabas Tūres” (www.dabastures.lv) for the support in making this article reality. Dabas tures offers internationally acclaimed birding tours in Latvia (lake Lubana, cranes and owls and many other bird tours), as well as numerous tours in other countries – spring in Argentina, Scottish landscapes, the castles of Northern Poland, all suitable for friends of nature. You don’t need to have any prior knowledge about birds, as the expert guides will teach you all about spotting the fauna and you will learn a lot!