Peninsula Valdes - a vast, remote and barren area in the middle of Atlantic Patagonia. The bays and shoreline of the peninsula jut out into the Atlantic, like a nipple, and serve as a marine life preserve for animals, notably penguins, elephant seals, sealions and whales. In order to reach the outer bays of this land mass you have to drive 75kms down an unsealed road, or to be more specific, a dirt track. A 4x4 is highly recommended. Animals in this area all run wild, in addition to the guanacos there are huge rabbits looking more like hares called Maras and a bevy of small birds and reptiles. The local beach area is controlled and access is with local guides only but in other areas you are free to roam, assuming you follow the rules.
In terms of numbers and size the highlight of these barren beaches you can smell before you see them – the company of several hundred elephant seals. The elephant seals are very smelly, never more so than at December/January due to the molting process that they go through after the mating season. The seashore it littered with females who are pregnant. They have a pup each year from the age of maturity, 2, until they are too old or knackered to have any more, around 20. In addition to the mums, there are equal numbers of pups who are now abandoned and alone for the mum is only maternal for 3 weeks. After that she leaves them to go and get pregnant again. There are no adult males around at this time: male elephant seals have a harem of up to 120 females and, after impregnating all of them they are, understandably knackered, have lost around 40% of their body weight (could be about 4 tons) and need to go to sea for a jolly good feed. They will come back to the same shores 4 months time later, all fat and blubby, and start the ritual all over again.
Alongside the smells is the noise of fighting mums, the male pups practicing their alpha dominance and crying pups who haven’t realized Mum has gone and they have to now fend for themselves. Given the speedy desertion pups gain 4x their birth-weight in 4 weeks for survival and amazingly the fatality rates for the pups is only around 2% – they learn quickly.
The added delight of this very oddly beautiful part of the world are the whales, as the peninsular is also famed for migrating whales, pods of humpbacks and orcas. An added bonus and real treat will be the sighting of orca in the bay that came in under the tuition of an adult male orca training the youngsters in how to attack and kill seals. They will swim in two pods searching out individual seals that are not resting on the beach. These seals are isolated by circling the animal before attacking it, tossing the body around and then discarding the animal after it has dead. During our visit two of the orcas practiced ‘beaching’ and disappeared back out again. The final tally of their exercise were four dead elephant seals just left bobbing around in the water and surf – clear evidence that they were not hungry but just practicing their killer skills – an awesome sight and one that will remain in our memories forever.