Friday, November 23, 2007

March with the Penguins

We arrived early this morning in Puerto Madryn, on the Atlantic coast, about 850 miles or so south of Buenos Aires. We had called to make reservations for lodging last night, but every place in our travel book that was in our price range was sold out. So, the first order of business involved finding a place to stay, which we managed to take care of pretty quickly, while somehow finding a place that´s actually a pretty good value, and not too far from the center of town, so we were happy about that.

We had planned on going sightseeing on the Peninsula Vald├ęs today, which is home to all sorts of marine life that is fairly difficult to see, especially in similar numbers, nearly anywhere else in the world. Among the highlights of such a tour was to be a whale-watching boat trip. This time of year is when the Southern Right Whales venture toward the shallower waters to give birth, and they frequently swim right up next to tour boats, affording amazing and dramatic views just a few meters off the boat.

However, when we got off the bus, we were immediately slapped in the face by a brisk, chilling wind, and it turned out that all the boat tours were closed, so we were forced to postpone that until tomorrow.

Instead, we found a tour going south to Punta Tombo, a spot on the coast about 125 miles south of here, to a nature reserve that is home to several hundred thousand Magellanic Penguins, as well as numerous other birds, and llama relatives called guanacos, which live amongst the penguins, but only eat plants. It´s a comical sight to see them walking with the penguins, as the guanacos are easily taller than I am.

We were certainly not disappointed. Home to the largest penguin colony outside of Antarctica, there were times when we had to stop in our tracks to let a fearless set of penguins cross the trail within a few feet of us. We took pictures of each of us only 3 or 4 feet from a penguin, and then penguins seemed content to stand there and pose for us. Everywhere we looked, we saw penguins. Many were down in holes they had dug under scrub bushes typical of the Patagonian soil (tall trees don´t grow because of the constant wind). Others were out sunning themselves when the wind would die down for a few minutes, while still others waddled along in a seemingly aimless fashion. Still others were out fishing in the frigid waters, diving and then resurfacing, while riding the waves back to the shore. The penguins thrive in this area due to having virtually no predators.

Perhaps most remarkable of all was the sight of numerous mother penguins nursing their young. This time of year is generally when eggs hatch, and we probably saw about 50 penguins sitting on their eggs, and at least that many caring for their newborns. Some of the newborns were old enough to be out sitting beside the mom (while still in their protective holes), while others were clearly no more than a few days old and, despite their best efforts, were not allowed out from underneath the mother´s protective warmth. We took quite a few pictures and movies, so we´ll have to see how they come out when we get home. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable experience.

On our way home, we stopped at a Paleontological museum in the city of Trelew, which, while nowhere near as cool as a penguin colony, was still interesting. It had many fossils and recreations of various prehistoric creatures that lived in what is now Patagonia. From there, we drove through a traditional Welsh town, which exists down here due to the fact that the Welsh were the first Europeans to permanently settle in this particular part of Patagonia. Argentina is quite the melting pot, with distinct immigrant groups from nearly any European country you could imagine.

When we got home, we walked along the beach and managed to see a whale within about 100 yards of the shore. I can´t say for sure exactly what kind it was, but it was at least 5 meters long, and was swimming on the surface for quite some time. It certainly managed to whet our appetite for tomorrow!

Ok, time to go sample some of the area´s famous seafood!

Go Hoos!

Rob

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