Kevin Bennett, WCA Intern
25/11/2016: The Search For Orcas – Part 3
I was starting to think I might never leave Piramides, and the staff in the office joked that I had actually seen orcas but I just didn’t want to leave. I set off hiking up to the road and again didn’t get picked up before the junction 5km uphill. I waited there for almost an hour with about 10 cars passing until a black 4×4 passed, stopped and then reversed back. They asked me a question in Spanish, keen to answer I thought it was “Where are you going?” I answered “Punta Cantor” and they started laughing cos they had actually asked where I was from. But now the ice was broken and they invited me to go with them.
They were quite young, early 20’s and spoke good English so we chatted about orcas – then football. Thanks to Jonas Guitierrez and Fabricio Coloccini it always goes down well when I say I’m a Newcastle fan in Argentina. They were from Buenos Aires so before telling them I had been to see a River Plate game two months ago I thought I’d better check that they weren’t fans of the rival team Boca Juniors, a rivalry that makes Newcastle vs Sunderland or Liverpool vs Everton look like child’s play. They were Boca fans so I decided to not mention my River Plate game, just that I hoped to go to a Boca game when I got to BA in December!
We got to Punta Cantor and they went towards the beach viewpoint closer to the elephant seals and I went to the cliff top for the panoramic view across the whole
bay. Within 10 minutes a guide with binoculars uttered the word orca and pointed south! I moved across the cliff and scanned the bay with my zoom lens, sure enough there they were, I spotted a couple of orcas about 800 meters away. They were quite close to the shore travelling towards us. Then I saw the huge dorsal fin of a male, a couple of hundred meters further out into the ocean. Focusing on him, before I knew it I had counted 7 orcas in total as others surfaced nearby.
After about 10 minutes they passed the cliff where I was stood, it was low tide so they were still quite far away. The two orcas in the shallows patrolling the beach and the large male and the rest of the pod a few hundred meters out. Once they had passed us we ran along the cliff to the north where there is a viewpoint much closer to sea level, we arrived just as the orcas were passing and it was amazing to witness the power and speed of these creatures in the wild.
Once they had passed the viewpoint they continued north towards the creek and seemed to wait around in front of the mouth, it was still a couple of hours from high tide so maybe they were waiting for higher water. The small group of us, still in awe of what we had just witnessed started walking back towards the carpark to move 3km north to the viewpoint by the mouth of the creek. On the way to the car we stumbled across a snake in the pathway, it was venomous but I couldn’t resist getting closer for a few pictures, it’s only the second wild snake I’ve ever seen.
We then travelled to the creek mouth in a convoy of three cars, I was still with the couple who picked me up a few hours before, when we had no idea what we were about to witness. They felt lucky and were in shock to have actually seen orcas at all. I confirmed that they really were very lucky, and maybe my lucky charm. They sighted orcas within about 10 minutes of arriving at the coast, I had been to this spot at least 10 times since the start of October and had spent at least 20 hours looking at this sea in the last 5 days!
We got to the creek mouth and there was a buzz in the air, word had spread and people knew the orcas were in the area, we waited for maybe 30 minutes and there was no sign. I used the quiet time to eat my lunch. Almost an hour later cars started arriving from the north, the orcas had been in the creek to the north, made a sea lion kill and were now heading south again towards us. They must’ve gone into the creek before we arrived as I’m sure we would have seen them pass through the mouth just in front of us. Surely enough within 10 minutes the orcas were in sight heading south. The viewpoint was absolutely buzzing and it was great, everyone was in awe of these amazing creatures and appreciating the opportunity we had to observe them naturally. Oddly, it reminded me of the one particular time a few days before when I had sat here alone in complete silence for a good portion of the afternoon.
The whales continued south inside the creek towards us, they passed closely by the sea lion colony on the north spit and fortunately for the sea lions, they were all out of reach as the super-predators swam by. But we all knew that an orca could lunge itself on to the beach to grab a sea lion any second so we waited in anticipation. All of the orcas passed by the sea lions without incident and rather than exiting into the open sea they come closer to us on the south side of the mouth, to the entrance of the much smaller and shallower southern end of the creek. I’m sure it was tempting for them to enter as around one hundred elephant seal pups lay around in the shallows. One of the larger females seemed to strand on a sandbank on the approach as she lifted herself almost fully out of the water to get free, it was after that the orcas turned and headed together to the open ocean. I’m sure that if the tide was high they would have come into the southern gulf and passed directly in front of the viewpoint.
So the orcas left the creek and started heading south again along the coast to Punta Cantor. Again they seemed to display the same behaviour I had seen before with two or three females patrolling close to the shore (within 5 – 10m) and the rest of the whales staying with the adult male around 300m from the shore. Maybe his huge dorsal fin was a distraction for the elephant seal pups on the beach who might not notice the more stealthy female threat nearby.
Again we had to move, the viewpoint at Punta cantor is around 3km away but it is not permitted to walk between them. The couple I had travelled with this afternoon were now heading back to Puerto Piramides but I was not ready to leave the animals I had waited almost a week to see. At the viewpoint I had heard a Yorkshire accent behind me, I turned and spoke to the guy and he was surprised to hear I was from the north of England too. He was called Mike and we got along immediately. It’s great when you have been away from home for a while and you are used to speaking slowly, clearly with the subtleties of British humour going completely unnoticed and suddenly you can speak like you are at home again and your humour is understood perfectly. I asked Mike if I could get a lift with him back to Punta Cantor and as is the norm in Patagonia, he obliged. He was already travelling with a French couple, whom I recognised from breakfast time in the hostel. But Mike was travelling in a huge camper-van and we could squeeze in no problems.
Mike was a great character, he was a chirpy northerner who found a joke in every situation and his van was amazing. A huge Mercedes sprinter he had custom
designed and converted specifically for his current journey. The van and himself had travelled from London to Montevideo in Uruguay on a cargo ship, a journey which took one month. He left his job after years of planning and is currently driving south to Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world and from there he will drive north, the entire trans-American highway which finishes 12,000 miles away in northern Alaska! Wow, respect!
Soon we were back at Punta Cantor, I took them to the cliff top where we spotted the orcas about 800m to the north, so I suggested we head down to the elephant seal view point along the coast, the others followed and were very glad to have someone who knew the area quite well as their personal guide. We hurried down the sandy path and arrived at the viewpoint with a few familiar faces already waiting. The orcas arrived shortly after, swimming just in front of us and past a beach littered with elephant seal pups. Here I managed to take some amazing pictures of the orcas!
Once the orcas passed us it was time to run back to the cliff top for another perspective of these amazing animals. I ran as fast as I could, but trying to look out for the poisonous snake that had been here a couple of hours earlier! The guys walked casually, I guess they hadn’t been waiting for over 20 years for an encounter with this amazing animal like I have, never mind the intense searching over the last 6 days. I arrived to the cliff top for an amazing view of the 3 female orcas so close to the shore that was full of pups. Here I took one of my favourite pictures, with a beach full of pups and the eerie silhouette of an orca inside the breaking wave just a few meters from the unsuspecting seals.
From here the 3 orcas close to the shore headed out into the ocean towards the waiting group that included the adult male. It was only then that my 3 new friends arrived to the cliff top, I was so glad I had ran because for me that specific encounter was a highlight. The whales were heading north again towards the entrance of the creek so we left in a hurry to catch them entering the mouth. We arrived and the viewpoint was still buzzing, with several tour parties remained that normally would have departed the coast an hour or two before. Again the orcas passed close to the shore covered with sea lions but they didn’t make an attack, even though the tide was high enough and they were just a few meters away from the prey.
The pod were soon heading north inside the creek and so we decided to move to the viewpoint at the penguin colony about 3km to the north. The 3 of us piled into Mike’s camper and we headed up the road to the penguin colony and to our surprise we arrived and had the place to ourselves. It was already about 6pm and the tour groups started heading back to Puerto Madryn, they still had to drive for two and a half hours.
We spotted the orca on the opposite bank of the creek about 500m to the south and heading our way. To our surprise the Penguins high up on the bank started to make an alarm call and within 5 seconds every penguin that was in the shallows below us was now stood on the beach, it was quite astonishing. We couldn’t believe that they had spotted or heard the orca from so far away. The alarm call was very distressing and several penguins took turns to repeat for around an hour, long after the orca had passed. I managed to capture the alarm call and the orcas passing with a video on my phone. We were still the only people witnessing this, we felt so lucky, four people who this morning were strangers, had bonded over such a spectacular natural encounter.
The orcas swam deeper into the creek, although it is 30km long there is only one entrance so the pod would have to pass us again in order to leave. At this point Mike
decided to make us all coffee in his van, it was proper coffee made with a cafetière… …luxury on the road! He even warmed up some empanadas (like a small South American Cornish pasty) in the oven and brought out a packet of biscuits for us to share, a treat we all really appreciated!
After another hour or so the sun started to set we decided to call it a night and drive back to Puerto Piramdes. I was more than satisfied with the day’s encounters and still couldn’t quite believe it to be honest. We had been so lucky to continually follow the pod of orcas up and down the coast for over four hours and we knew it. For the others it was their first visit to Caleta Valdes, and for me it was at least my tenth.
For the last 6 days I was on a mission to see these animals and I couldn’t have wished for such an amazing encounter. I had woke up every morning and gone out to hitchhike with my orca sign, staying at the coast as late as I could and often arriving back into the hostel as the sun was setting. I had hitchhiked over 1000km in those 6 days, riding with drivers from France, Argentina, Belgium, Spain, Britain, Italy and probably other nationalities I am forgetting. In total I had spent close to 30 hours at the shore and a similar time travelling, but today’s encounters were absolutely worth every minute of effort.
We got back to Piramides as it was getting dark and Mike said he wanted to go back tomorrow to try and observe a hunt. It was so hard for me to admit that I shouldn’t go with him so I kept my mouth closed knowing that I should now continue my travels south and go out on a high, otherwise I might never leave! I spent the rest of the night looking through my photographs in awe, I couldn’t believe that I had taken them!!