20 Nov The Search for Orcas – Part 1

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Kevin Bennett, WCA Intern

20/11/2016: The Search for Orcas – Part 1

 

Day One.
So once I finished my volunteer placement with Bottazzi it was now time for my own personal mission; see Orcas in Peninsular Valdes. The first morning, I woke up keenly and after breakfast I hitchhiked 80km from Puerto Piràmides to Caleta Valdes, a part of the peninsular with one of the best chances for spotting the animals during November, at least according to all of the guides and locals I had been interrogating over the last couple of months.
Until I came to South America I had never hitchhiked before, I think this is normal for someone coming from Britain but from speaking to so many travellers here I got the impression it was a lot more common here and perfectly safe… Just maybe a little awkward if you don’t speak Spanish.
My first ever hitchhiking experience was across the border from Foz du Iguacu, Brazil to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina.  I had been told that the crossing was a simple one and could be done by public bus.  I took the bus from outside my hostel to the Brazilian border where I got off to get my passport stamped to leave the country, the driver said he would wait 5 minutes for the small group of us who needed to do it, a few minutes later we returned to the bus stop and he was long gone.  The next bus which we could take with our ticket would be another 30 minutes and I had a flight to catch in a few hours!  Plus I figured that the next bus would only take us as far as the border of Argentina which was on the other side of a bridge about 5km away, where I would then have to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus which would take me into town.  This process was going to take too long so others at the bus top suggested hitchhiking which I did.  I stuck out my thumb at the passing cars and within a few minutes I was crossing the bridge.
Back to Peninsular Valdes, I left Puerto Piramides at 9am and started hiking 5km uphill to the junction with the main road that goes from East to West across the peninsular, increasing my chances of getting picked up because here I also have the traffic going directly from Puerto Madryn on the mainland to Punta Norte, Punta Cantor or Caleta (Creek) Valdez.  On my way uphill a van stopped and even though the driver was going to Puerto Madryn he offered me a ride to the crossroads anyway, I gladly accepted.  At the crossroads about 10 cars passed in 20 minutes when a kind Argentinean couple stopped and offered me a lift.  I arrived at Caleta Valdes at high tide and waited patiently for three and a half hours looking out to sea for black dorsal fins.
Whilst I was alone watching and waiting I had an interesting realisation that I could hear nothing manmade.  Not an engine, a voice, a clock, a radio or a phone ringing.  Only wind, waves, birds chirping, elephant seals and sea lions grunting; it was a very satisfying experience and unfortunately short lived  as a bus full of tourists came over the horizon.  Once the tide was so low that the chances of orcas appearing were reduced significantly I decided to call it a day and asked a couple who were just about to leave the viewpoint  if I could travel with them to Puerto Piramides.  No luck today but I’ll be back to try again tomorrow.
Hitchhiker Sign - Copyright Kevin BennettPuerto Madryn Sign - Copyright Kevin BennettHitchhiker - Copyright Kevin BennettRoad Signs - Copyright Kevin Bennett
Day Two.
Panoramic Elephant Seal Beach - Copyright Kevin BennettDay two was a fairly uneventful day but an amazing day all the same.  Again I hitchhiked the 160km round trip and spent 5 hours at the coast around high tide .  Today I also tried my luck at Punta Cantor  just south of Caleta Valdes.  Punta Cantor has a superb panoramic view of the Argentine sea and a beach littered with elephant seal pups, which are actually about the size of adult sea lions but still perfect sized Orca snacks!  A highlight of the day was sharing my banana with a mocking bird that was surprisingly confident around people and comfortable eating from my hand.  I still didn’t see the Panoramic View Point - Copyright Kevin Bennettelusive Orcas but fingers crossed for tomorrow.

 

Bird - Copyright Kevin Bennett
Day Three.
The weekend had arrived and I got off to a late start today after getting in from La Puerta (my favourite bar in Puerto Piramides) at 5am, I should have left earlier but the beer was flowing and they started playing The Smiths, one of my favourite bands from my late teens and I was loving it.  As a musician I was amazed at how much the Argentinians (and South Americans in general) loved British music, especially classic acts like The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. But what I found even more surprising is that any music with English lyrics was banned from Argentinian radio from the end of Falklands war in 1982 for several years. For that reason I was interested in exactly how people got into bands of that era such as The Smiths and The Cure because they were obviously very popular here.  Maybe there was an underground market for records or maybe they just waited until the 90’s.

 

Back to Orcas… The port was closed due to strong winds and so there was no whale watching trips from Piramides.  I went along to the Bottazzi office to get a coffee to help with my hangover and in there were an English couple who were trying to book a trip.  The office was being manned by the photographer Hernan who didn’t speak much English so I helped them communicate with my basic Spanish and then we got chatting about why I was there.  They booked a whale watching trip for the following day and were now looking for something to do for the afternoon and I persuaded them to go and look for Orcas, and take me with them!
At the exposed coast the Southerly gale was really felt and you could tell that the wind was from Antarctica!  We were all wrapped up and they were really keen birdwatchers so it was really interesting to see the wildlife through new eyes and find out the names of the birds I’d been seeing recently.
Whale Skeleton - Copyright Kevin BennettWe waited for a couple of hours and were joined by the mockingbird I fed yesterday. But again… sadly no whales today,  although for the first time I did go to Punta Delgada on the southern tip of the peninsular as we took a detour on the way back to Piramides.  There they had an impressive Southern Right Whale skeleton on display in front of the hotel, the size of these creatures never ceased to amaze me.
I got back to the hostel to hear that orcas had been seen at Punta Norte in the afternoon, so that’s where I intend to head tomorrow, it’s gonna be harder to get a lift there so wish me luck!
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