KEVIN BENNETT, WCA INTERN
16/11/2016: THE KELP GULL PROBLEM AND THE BITTERSWEET FEELING OF LEAVING PIRAMIDES
There is one common issue in Peninsular Valdes that I feel is important to highlight. In Puerto Madryn there was a fish processing factory that for many years had uncovered waste sites and this led to a massive boom in the kelp gull population. The numbers got that big that eventually more and more birds started to copy an originally small number of kelp gulls who fed on the whales by landing on a whale as it was at the surface and pecking through the skin and into the blubber. After this behaviour was first noticed there were campaigns for the fish factory to dispose of the waste more responsibly and now they move it a few kilometres further inland.
However the problem hasn’t gone away and is specific to the area. It is especially bad because the seagulls target the calves more as they have to spend more time at the surface, so it was quite common to see calves with a lot of scarring along their backs. This leaves the animals prone to infection which can cause death, but it also disturbs the animals when they are taking milk which can mean they don’t get enough and don’t grow as big before it is time to set off to the feeding grounds in Antarctica before the summer arrives. Scientists have been studying this behaviour for a few years now and it is a complex problem that is not simple to solve and unfortunately man made. Not all of the kelp gulls display this behaviour, I witnessed many gulls fly close to whales and simply fly off, but I also witnessed gulls that would arrive to attack the whale, quite often after a while had given up its location by breaching or tail slapping.
It was decided to have a boat with a gunman that would shoot birds that displayed attacking behaviour, a very controversial approach but maybe the only plausible one as by indiscriminately killing the birds on land, could be killing many birds which don’t demonstrate this behaviour and allowing birds that do attack to continue to do so. However due to a recent change in government, the funding was withdrawn for that project. I believe that a good way forward maybe to mark the birds that show this behaviour with something like a paintball, then it may become clear which colonies of birds are displaying and passing on this behaviour and it might become easier to contain the problem.
When the day finally arrived it was a real bittersweet feeling to leave Puerto Piràmides. After almost 8 weeks of living in this wonderful tiny town it was hard to leave and I had a similar feeling to what I’ve had before when leaving home knowing I wont be back for a long time. The hospitality of the local people is second to none. I lost count of the number of times I’ve eaten amazing meals and drank all night whilst paying nothing and being asked for nothing in return. A generosity that will always stay with me and one I hope to repay in the northern hemisphere one day. I have never experienced such an intense sense of community, it’s easy to make friends when you see almost everyone in the village daily going about their jobs, and then again in the restaurants and the bars at night. You all embraced upon meeting and there was no real need to swap phone numbers or become friends on Facebook because you most likely saw each other later in the day or tomorrow anyway.
Now to the reason I came to Argentina… … It wasn’t just to see whales and have a blast!
The net effect project. I would like to thank the World Cetacean Alliance and especially CEO Dylan Walker for having faith in me as I was one of only two of the nine interns who had no formal marine biology education. Thanks for allowing me this amazing opportunity to finally get involved in marine conservation and long should it continue. Also a huge thank you to Romina, Miguel and Carlos Bottazzi for their hospitality, patience and encouragement. With Bottazzi whale watching I have done close to one hundred trips and talked about the serious issue of entanglement with passengers from all corners of the earth as we shared amazing wildlife encounters.
And I’d like to give a special shout out to my partner in conservation Emma Watton, it was a fantastic experience to share and one that wouldn’t have been the same without another northerner to share some English humour. Good luck with your next adventure and see you on a future project, who knows where?!?
On my last night in the area I was in a restaurant in Puerto Madryn with friends sharing a meal. When the bill arrived I went to add my share and noticed a new blue note in the pile. I quickly checked and it was the new 200 peso note that is dedicated to the southern right whale, immediately I took it and replaced it with two one hundred notes. After that I travelled for one more month in Argentina and never saw another 200 peso note, but I’m glad I got one to take home; a great souvenir from a life changing experience.